Why Imputation Is Not a Legal Fiction

A very common objection from Roman Catholics against the Protestant doctrine of imputation is that God declares someone to be innocent who is not, in fact, innocent. This is legal nonsense, to them. They believe that God would never declare a person to be righteous who is not, in fact, righteous. So, the Protestant idea that an alien righteousness, that of Christ, is reckoned to the sinner, is nonsense to them. It would be God declaring something to be true which is actually false. So, how do Protestants respond to this? There are a variety of responses, but the best one, it seems to me, resides in the metaphor of marriage union. We will also add a few things afterwards that will help us understand.

In most marriages, property entails joint ownership. Now, if a woman comes into the marriage with a debt (like a college debt), the husband assumes that debt. It becomes their debt (it can also be described as his debt), even though the husband did not incur that debt. Similarly, whatever money the husband brought into the marriage doesn’t belong just to him anymore, it also belongs to her, even though she did not earn it. So, by virtue of the marriage union between husband and wife, the debts and the assets are transferred.

In a very similar way, when the believer becomes united to Christ by faith, a new legal situation results with transfers happening. I think a lot of the problems that Roman Catholics have over the Protestant doctrine is that sometimes Protestants formulate the alien righteousness imputation idea as though there were no other accompanying-but-distinct salvific benefits happening at all.

Now, let us be clear here. The Protestant doctrine should never be formulated in such a way that union with Christ, for instance, has an internal change happening in the believer that thereby becomes the basis for the imputation. Christ’s righteousness is the basis for the transfer, not anything that happens in the believer. It happens by the instrumentation of faith.

What the marriage union does accomplish in justification has to do with the legality of the transfer. The new legal status we have as being part of the bride of Christ (our being married to Christ) means that anything Christ transfers to us happens legally whether we deserve it or not.

There is, of course, another concomitant salvific benefit that has equal power to explain how it is that justification is not a legal fiction. This benefit works on a different level, but it is still quite effective in combating the “legal fiction” charge, and it is just as biblical. When the believer comes to faith in Christ, he is adopted as God’s child. Adoption also confers a new legal status, this time with more reference to the Father through Jesus (whereas the marriage happens between Christ and the church, adoption is more the Father’s action, though it certainly has reference to the Son and the Spirit of adoption). When God declares us His heirs, then there is no reason whatsoever that God can not transfer anything to us that originally belonged to His Son. It would be no more difficult than imagining a father changing his will.

One last distinction can help us here. There is a difference between being a sinner as opposed to what our legal status before the law is. With regard to being a sinner, we are always sinners until God takes away our sin nature in death. However, with regard to our legal status before the law, God’s declarative action makes us legally innocent, even though that declaration does not change our nature. So when Luther says simul justus et peccator (simultaneously just and a sinner), we are to understand that we are still sinners (though we have been changed in regeneration such that being a sinner is not all there is to say) in our being, and yet we are actually just in the view of the law. Our legal status has similarities to a criminal who is acquitted of a crime that he did in fact commit. He is in his being guilty, and yet in the eyes of the law, he is not guilty.

While Roman Catholics will certainly not agree with these formulations, nevertheless, I believe that the above does put to rest the rather old canard that Protestants believe in a legal fiction in the doctrine of imputation. Marriage and adoption create new legal situations where transfers are not only easily accomplished, but are in fact rather normal.

Is Faith Itself Imputed as Our Righteousness?

Arminians and Roman Catholics will typically argue that Romans 4:5,9 are talking about faith itself as the thing that is imputed, thus avoiding imputation of an alien righteousness. They will translate it something like “faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Sometimes they will use the word “for” instead of “as” while understanding it of identity. There are three insuperable objections to this understanding of the passage. Here are the two verses (translation mine):

4:5 “To the one who does not work but rather believes in the One justifying the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” 4:9 “Does this blessing, therefore, come to the circumcised only or also to the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.”

The first insuperable objection to understanding faith itself as the thing reckoned is the context, especially verses 3-5. It goes like this: if faith is righteousness (in the eyes of the law), then it is a work. Then works justify us, the very thing Paul explicitly denies in verses 3-5, where he contrasts faith and works, and makes a point of saying that it is NOT reckoned as a reward, but rather as of grace. If in the situation of justification, there is anything in us that is righteous as a basis for justification, then it is a reward, and not of grace. There is no way around this problem. Limiting the scope of the works so that they are boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t fly at all. The contrast is between the one working and the one believing. That is a general contrast.

The second insuperable objection is the nature of faith itself, which has to be determined from the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures usually speak of faith as being in someone. Faith is really not a thing inside us. It is rather our connection to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Triune God. Faith derives its meaning and substance from the object of faith, not from faith itself. Otherwise, we are saved by faith in faith. Faith is rather our connection to God. The analogy I like to use goes like this: if a person is canning something, then he is faced with a situation of having to get jars out of boiling water. Obviously, he cannot use his hands to do so. Therefore, he must use something to grasp hold of the jars. There are tongs manufactured for just such a purpose. They wrap around the lip of the jar so that a person can lift the jar out without any mishap. Faith is like those tongs. Faith is not the jar with the good stuff in it. Faith lays hold of Christ and all His goodness. It connects us to Him. It is another way of saying our union with Christ which the Holy Spirit creates.

The third insuperable objection (and something that is absolutely fatal to Roman Catholic understandings of justification) is the phrase “justifier of the ungodly” in verse 5. Roman Catholic theology NEVER believes that God ever justifies an ungodly person. Nevertheless, in all the ways that count at the time of justification, Abraham was ungodly in his actions (remembering that faith is contrasted with works in verses 3-5). If faith itself is the righteousness, then God would be justifying the godly, not the ungodly. But Paul says here that God is justifying the ungodly. In a future post I will argue the case that this understanding is not a legal fiction.

Is Imputation Taught in Romans 4?

Nick, over at Creed Code Cult, has thrown down the gauntlet (thrown many times before, of course) that Romans does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. I don’t think I will get to all the things he addresses, but I do want to address Romans 4 in particular, since that is the clearest place where Paul does teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

But let’s summarize Nick’s argument first. He notes that David, in Psalm 32, does not speak about righteousness being imputed. Paul, in quoting Psalm 32, mentions it as a “counting for righteousness.” Therefore, according to Nick, forgiveness of sins is the equivalent of being regarded as righteous. In fact, Nick goes farther than that to claim that this is the “only coherent explanation.” He then adds a reductio ad absurdam argument: “Realizing this, it’s impossible to interpret ‘reckoning righteousness’ with the ‘Imputed Righteousness of Christ’ (as Protectants typically identify it), because then you’d have to say forgiveness of sins refers to Christ’s keeping of the law in our place, which makes little sense.” This is a very brief summary of Nick’s argument, but it will do to be getting on with.

There is another equally coherent explanation of the way that Paul quotes David that does much better justice to the context of the early part of Romans 4 (which Nick ignores), and it is this: Paul regards the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sin (with the accompanying imputation of our sin to Christ) as so tightly coherent that they always come together. In other words, to say that one happens is to say that the other also happens, because they are the flip side of each other. Let’s see how Paul does that.

Paul asks the question of whether Abraham was justified by works. Leaving aside for a moment the much-vexed question of the scope of these works, we merely note at the moment that positive works that obey the law are certainly in view here, obviously not works for which Abraham would need forgiveness. This is proven by the introduction of the boasting motif in verse 2. One presumably does not boast of sin. As opposed to this method of being justified, Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith instead. The key phrase here is “eis dikaiosunen” (“for righteousness”). Faith itself is not a fulfillment of the law. The very nature of faith is that it lays hold on Someone Else. So faith itself cannot be the righteousness here mentioned. The “eis” is a telic preposition. Faith, in laying hold of Jesus Christ, lays hold of His righteousness. Let me be plain: the righteousness here spoken of cannot be Abraham’s righteousness. Otherwise, he would be tempted to boast (as per verse 2). Verse 2 also proves that the concept of “righteousness” as used here in the passage CANNOT refer merely to the forgiveness of sins, which is not something about which a person would even be tempted to boast. It is further proven by the case of Adam in the garden. Forgiveness of sins wipes the slate clean. Adam started with a clean slate. So why didn’t he pass immediately into glory? Because he had to prove himself vis-a-vis the command that the Lord had given him. He had to be actively righteous to God’s command to multiply, fill the earth, guard the garden from Satanic intruders and not eat of the tree. Neutrality does not equal the blessedness of David by itself. What Paul is saying is that David’s explicit mention of forgiveness as constituting blessedness is half the picture, and imputation is the always-accompanying other half of the picture. Paul is saying that we need a righteousness. We cannot get it by working, because then it wouldn’t be grace (as verse 4 says so clearly). Faith is the only way to get this righteousness.

As Calvin would say, we need two things in justification: forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness. An analogy I’m fond of using is the gears of a car. Having one’s sins forgiven is like being taken out of reverse gear and put into neutral. Imputation is like being put into a forward gear. You need both of them to be headed in the right direction.

Lastly, I need to answer Nick’s reductio argument. Christ’s keeping of the law results in two very important facts for the believer. Firstly, it constitutes Christ the perfect Lamb, who can take away our sins (so, you see, Christ’s righteousness is VERY closely tied to the forgiveness of sins: if Christ was not the perfect Lamb, then He could not take away our sins, and He couldn’t die in our place). Secondly, He earned our way to heaven. Nick’s reductio fails because he leaves out the step of Christ’s righteousness constituting Him the perfect Lamb, and thereby achieving our forgiveness.

I will answer also his claim about the phrase “justified by His blood” being absurd to talk about the imputation of righteousness. As I have already noted (and what is a commonplace in Reformed treatments of justification), justification is not just about imputation, but also about forgiveness. Sometimes one aspect is more in view, sometimes the other. In 5:9, plainly forgiveness is more in view, since he is talking about being saved from wrath. Wrath is upon us due to sin, so when that sin is taken away from us, so is God’s wrath. That will do, to get the conversation started.


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.

Response to Jason Stellman, Part 1

In this comment, Jason began a biblical exposition of his understanding of salvation. I want to interact with this on the level he’s been asking. So, here goes. Jason’s words are block-quoted, and my commentary follows.

My basic thesis would be something like this: The gospel is the teaching that, because of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ and subsequent gift of the Spirit, the love of God is shed forth in sinners’ hearts, enabling them to love God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law and gaining eternal life.

I could actually agree with a fair bit of this summary. I just think it is incomplete at one part, and wrong at one part. It is incomplete when he says that “the love of God is shed forth in sinners’ hearts.” This is true, but God’s work in the gospel is not only shed forth in sinners’ hearts, but also shown outside of us on the cross itself. Now, Jason does say “because of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ and subsequent gift of the Spirit.” However, the way it is worded there makes it seem as though those things are foundational to the Gospel, as opposed to being part of the Gospel itself. Most of the instances of the word “Gospel” that occur in the New Testament are not instances that define what the Gospel is. We must, of course, beware of the word-concept fallacy here. Definitions of the Gospel often occur without the word “Gospel” being present. But one of the most important instances of the word “Gospel” occurring in a context that also defines what that Gospel is is 1 Corinthians 15. Paul talks about the Gospel preached, in verse 1, which the Corinthians received, and by which they were saved. Then, verse 3 defines what that Gospel is: the propitiatory death of Christ (v. 3), His burial and resurrection (v. 4). Then all of Christ’s appearances post-Resurrection are listed next (verses 5-8) as still being part of that Gospel. His definition of the Gospel doesn’t really end until verse 11. Verse 12 starts the discussion about one particular aspect of the Gospel: Christ’s resurrection. So, the Gospel is not just stuff that occurs inside of us, but also stuff that occurs outside of us. I’m sure, at this point, that Jason would agree. Where we would disagree is in the “how” of the application. We would both agree, even, that there are definite internal aspects to salvation applied. God does change us internally by shedding forth His love inside of us. I would just argue that such is sanctification, not justification. More on that later. The part of his definition that is simply wrong is that the internal work of God inside of us is the basis for gaining eternal life. I would argue that it is the evidence of justification, and is therefore the necessary result of justification, not part of justification itself.

First, I would insist—contra some Reformed guys like VanDrunen—that in order to learn the gospel we need to start with Jesus and then look for his teaching echoed in the other NT writers (rather than saying that we should begin with Paul). So keep that in mind: Jesus gets the first and last word.

This is hermeneutically wrong, I’m afraid. Jesus does get the first and last word. But ALL the Bible is the Word of God, the communication of God, which He gave to us in Jesus Christ, Who is not only the subject of revelation, but also the object of that same revelation. Jesus spoke just as much through Paul’s words as He did through His own on earth (Hebrews 1 shows this conclusively, equating all of the “last days” revelation with the revelation of the Son). So, Jesus’ words in the Gospels are not somehow more (or less!) fundamental than the words of Paul. The reason that Reformed guys like VanDrunen argue for starting with Paul is simply that Paul is MUCH more full on the topic of justification than Jesus was. Paul has the most complete discussions of justification. So, wouldn’t it make sense to go to the most developed place where such doctrine is taught? When Jesus preaches about the Gospel, He primarily ties it to the Kingdom of God. And, in preaching to Israel, that makes a great deal of sense. He is telling them that what they were expecting has now broken into history. However, Jesus devotes much less time than Paul did to the discussion of how the gospel is applied to us.

On several occasions Jesus taught that love of God and neighbor fulfill the law and prophets (the golden rule in Matt. 7, his answer to the scribe in Matt. 22). In fact, in Mark’s account of the question about the greatest commandment, the scribe, after hearing Jesus’ answer, goes on and says that Jesus spoke truly, and that love for God and neighbor are more important than sacrifices and burnt offerings. Jesus then encourages him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (which leads me to believe that Jesus’ intent was not to use the dual command of love as a first-use, pedagogical tool that the scribe should have realized was impossible to keep. This love, I think, is the “righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus spoke of in the sermon on the mount. In other words, that righteousness is not just more exact obedience than they offered already (as if), but a qualitatively different kind of obedience, one flowing from the heart, wrought by the NC gift of the Spirit.

No Reformed person I know of would disagree that love of God and neighbor fulfills the law and the prophets. We would merely qualify that by quoting Galatians 3:10, which quotes, in turn, Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” Incidentally, that verse certainly seems to see the law as a list of things to do or not do. Verses 11 and 12 of that same chapter (Galatians 3) contrast the two ways of justification: the hypothetical way of doing the law that no one can do (verse 11), and the way of faith (verse 12). The reason no one can do the first way is verse 10: no one can keep the entire law, and we are under a curse if we do not do all those things. But the essence of all those things IS love. The final kicker, and the essence of the Gospel as applied to us, is verse 13 of that chapter. The curse of verse 10 comes on Christ in verse 13 by a vicarious substitution (“having become a curse for us”). Now, having been justified (and I would argue, at the same time as justification, but not included in it), we also receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (verse 14). That the words of the law CANNOT be limited to boundary markers, or ceremonial works of the law (like the NPP and the RCC have affirmed) is proven from the all-inclusive nature of verse 10: “ALL things written in the book of the law.” Not merely some things, but all things. Of course, circumcision is included. But the works of the law are not limited to circumcision. In other words, to get back to the main point: no one can love God as they ought. Love for God and neighbor in this chapter of Galatians is equivalent to works of the law, which equals the way of justification that is not possible, because we are under the curse. In short, we cannot be justified by our love for God and neighbor. That the law does indeed have a pedagogical use in this chapter is confirmed by verses 23ff. To limit the law to boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t work in verse 24. Love of God is only possible when we are sanctified, which means that justification must happen some other way. Faith in Christ, which is everywhere in Galatians 3 contrasted with works, is what justifies.

As to Mark’s account of the scribe, the passage proves too much. The scribe described the Roman Catholic position on love for God and neighbor (and Reformed, I might add!) fairly accurately. So why is he described as “not far from?” Why is he not described as “hitting the nail on the head?” If that is what is required for justification, then he has it right. The reason is that one element is missing in the scribe’s reasoning: how you get into the kingdom is not the same as how you live once you are in it. What the scribe described, then, is what life looks like in the kingdom of God. But how you get there is a different thing. So, it is not actually necessary for the Reformed view to look at this description of law as purely first-use pedagogical. The scribe is also describing what the Reformed would talk about as the third use of the law. It was the first use of the law that the scribe was missing, while he was describing the third use.

As to Christ’s statement in the SM about a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, I agree that it exceeds in kind what the Pharisees and the scribes tried to do, and I can even agree that such obedience is from the Holy Spirit imbuing us with that ability. I disagree that this is the way we are justified (which is hardly in the context). Jesus’ words have to do with what is necessary, not what is causative. This is especially true when He talks about entering the kingdom of heaven. Yes, we do not enter the kingdom of God without works. But we do NOT enter the kingdom of God BECAUSE OF our works, either. Turretin describes it well when he says that our good works are necessary for salvation not in a causative sense, but in a resultative sense. They necessarily follow. So, they are necessary. But they do not cause our salvation. Neither does our love for God or neighbor. Our good works are the result of God’s sanctifying work inside of us. And, to give a glimpse of where I’m going in the next few posts: the passages that connect good works to the final judgment are evidentiary in nature, not causative. The world will want to know whether our faith is genuine. At that point, God will trot out our works and show the world that our faith was genuine, and that the verdict already rendered in our lifetimes is a true verdict. That’s what our works will do on Judgment Day.

List Paradigm Versus Agape Paradigm

Over on Called to Communion, Bryan has critiqued my friend Nick Batzig’s post on imputation in justification.

In this post, Bryan Cross attempts to delineate two different paradigms for understanding what it means to keep the law. What he describes as the Protestant paradigm is the “list” paradigm, which he describes in these words:

In the list paradigm, perfect law-keeping is conceived as keeping a list of God given precepts. According to this paradigm, perfect law-keeping requires perfectly and perpetually keeping (and not in any way violating) every single precept in the list. In the New Covenant, we are given more gifts for growing progressively in our ability to keep the law, but nevertheless, nobody in this life keeps the list perfectly. All fall short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness. That’s the paradigm through which Batzig views God’s requirement of righteousness for salvation.

Cross compares and contrasts this paradigm with what he calls the “agape” (Greek word for “love”) paradigm:

In the agape paradigm, by contrast, agape is the fulfillment of the law. Agape is not merely some power or force or energy by which one is enabled better to keep the list of rules, either perfectly or imperfectly. Rather, agape is what the law has pointed to all along. To have agape in one’s soul is to have the perfect righteousness to which the list of precepts point. Righteousness conceived as keeping a list of externally written precepts is conceptually a shadow of the true righteousness which consists of agape infused into the soul. This infusion of agape is the law written on the heart. But the writing of the law on the heart should not be conceived as merely memorizing the list of precepts, or being more highly motivated to keep the list of precepts. To conceive of agape as merely a force or good motivation that helps us better (but imperfectly, in this life) keep the list of rules, is still to be in the list paradigm. The writing of the law on the heart provides in itself the very fulfillment of the law — that perfection to which the external law always pointed. To have agape is already to have fulfilled the telos (Greek word for “end,” “purpose,” or “goal,” LK) of the law, a telos that is expressed in our words, deeds, and actions because they are all ordered to a supernatural end unless we commit a mortal sin (bold and italics original).

Cross’s critique of Batzig’s exegetical arguments are examples of his explication of this list paradigm versus agape paradigm difference.

He argues:

He (Batzig, LK) uses the list paradigm in order to argue for the extra nos conception of imputation. Catholic doctrine, however, is formulated within the agape paradigm. So using the list paradigm to construct an argument against the Catholic doctrine of justification presupposes the Protestant position in the very methodology by which the argument is constructed. It loads the premise “Protestantism is true” into the very argument by which one attempts to show that Protestantism is true and Catholicism is false.

I would encourage people to read the comments. Nick Batzig and Jerry Koerkenmeier have done an excellent job responding to Bryan Cross, especially on the exegetical points. I want to talk about the whole paradigm argument.

First point (regarding the last paragraph quoted above): one can turn this argument right on its head. A Romanist paradigm assumes the Romanist position in the very methodology by which the argument is constructed. Without actually arguing for the paradigm itself, Cross is simply saying that there are two different paradigms. No doubt he would say that he has argued for it. Does he argue with exegesis? Well, his point concerning “Christ our righteousness” doesn’t have any exegesis to go along with it. He only quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. In answering Batzig’s exegesis on Romans 4, he only quotes Trent. That is not exegesis. Again, read Batzig and Koerkenmeier’s comments and you will find some exegesis.

Secondly, even if his description of the two paradigms is true, that does not make the Protestant position circular. This is because assuming a list paradigm is simply not the same thing as saying or assuming that “Protestantism is true.” Those are two completely different statements. Again, assuming the list paradigm is true for the moment, that hardly constitutes the totality of Protestantism. Cross is here guilty of extension. This is what happens when a person looks at a statement or assumption and extends it beyond what the original statement or assumption meant, and then refuting the extension, instead of the actual statement or assumption. Protestantism includes Sola Scriptura, for instance, not a doctrine directly implied in the list paradigm.

Third point, and this point regards the whole list paradigm-agape paradigm: this is, quite simply, a false dichotomy. What Protestant fails to recognize that the heart of the law is love? Isn’t this what Jesus says when asked which is the greatest commandment? He says that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest is to love neighbor. Protestants have almost universally understood this to mean that the first four commandments have as their heart the love of God, while the second six commandments have as their heart the love of neighbor. So, law-keeping has NEVER been solely about keeping a list of commandments, although it certainly includes that, as I think even Cross acknowledges. Law-keeping has always been about loving God and loving neighbor. That is the heart of the law. It is also a clear reflection of the character of God, Who is love. The moral law, therefore, is an expression of the very character of God.

The point, then, is that the Protestant position has NEVER assumed what Cross says it assumes. Imputation is NOT just about Christ’s obedience to a list of commands, which obedience is then imputed to us. It is also about Christ’s love for His Father, and His love for His neighbors, which is imputed to us. It is, therefore, BOTH Christ’s obedience to a list (which the TEN Commandments certainly are!), AND His love for God and love for neighbor that is imputed or reckoned to us. It is the fulfillment of everything the law is, including its very heart of agape. Quite frankly, Cross has not understood the Protestant position very well here. On other occasions, I have seen him do fairly well describing the Protestant position, but I don’t recognize ANY Protestant position in what he describes.

The real question is this: does the Protestant doctrine of imputation itself assume a list paradigm? How can it? The idea of imputation doesn’t directly address the question of how Jesus obeyed the law. It rather addresses the question of how Christ’s righteousness becomes ours. So, Jesus could have obeyed the law any number of ways, and that would be immaterial to whether we get that righteousness by imputation or infusion. What Cross has not even remotely demonstrated is that imputation itself assumes a list paradigm. This, I would think, would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

In looking at the comments, there are a couple more things necessary to say. Firstly, though this is indeed debated in Protestantism, I would disagree with Cross’s claim that Protestants do not believe that a person can be truly righteous internally. This made me think of a very important thing that Rick Phillips said at the recent Gospel Reformation Network conference in February. He said that when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell inside of us, we are no longer totally depraved. The remnants of sin still cling to us, yes. However, wherever the Holy Spirit is inside us, that place (if you want to think spacially as metaphorical) is no longer totally depraved. This follows from the doctrine of regeneration. We have a new nature. Sometimes Protestants are so gung-ho about total depravity, that they forget the nature of the change wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. It is a real change. The doctrine of “T” in TULIP, then, is NOT true of the believer. This does not mean that we are ever perfect. Perfection is for eternity. However, it does mean that we can be really righteous internally, the imperfection also being covered by the blood of the Lamb.

Secondly, Nick and Jerry surely got the better of Cross exegetically when it comes to Romans 4. Cross’s claim that when Paul uses Abraham as a paradigm for believers in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, that it was not in every respect that Abraham was a paradigm is an evasion. The particular aspect in which Abraham is a paradigm is with regard to imputed righteousness apart from any aspect of his own law-keeping and apart from any ceremony or sacrament! This is explicitly true in Romans 4:11 (Cross’s claim that the New Testament sacraments are greater than the old is ably answered by Jerry in comment 77).

One last point. Cross claims that justification is a process because imputation happens more than once in Abraham’s case. Firstly, it is startling to see any Romanist speak favorably of imputation. Secondly, Abraham was not reckoned righteous before God in the justificatory sense more than once. To simply quote James 2, as if that settled the matter without any exegesis or acknowledgment of the reams of Protestant exegesis, simply ignores the issue. “Dikaioo” can be used in more than one sense. When wisdom is justified by her children, it does not mean that wisdom was declared not guilty on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. It means that wisdom was shown to be in the right. This is an evidentiary sense of “dikaioo,” not a declaratory. I would argue, therefore, that James is talking about showing faith to be genuine, when he uses the word “dikaioo.” This is supported by the contextual factors of the (false) claim to have faith in verse 14, and the explicit reference to “show me” (twice, no less!) in verse 18. James is not talking about being right before God, but about being shown to be right before God. So, in Abraham’s case, he was declared to be justified in Genesis 15. He was shown to be righteous in Genesis 22 (which fact James references in 2:21, the actual event that proved that Abraham was in fact justified).

Tempted By the Tiber?

All of the hoopla surrounding Stellman has reminded me of the importance of this question: how do we build our theology? And if we are tempted by the Tiber, how do we go about resolving the questions that arise?

I think that the Bayly brothers have some excellent advice. I would modify it a bit by saying that anyone tempted by the Tiber should concentrate on two issues: justification and Scripture.

On either of these issues, a person should scour the Reformed tradition to see if there are good answers to their specific questions. Do not neglect the older authors, either. On justification, one should read (at least!) the following three books: Owen, Buchanan, and Fesko. It wouldn’t hurt either to do some digging in the OPC study committee report to learn why union with Christ does not make imputation redundant, but rather ensures that imputation is not a legal fiction. These resources would be a bare minimum of what a person should read.

On Scripture, I cannot even stress the importance of Whitaker strongly enough. If you read no other book on Scripture, read Whitaker. This is BY FAR the best book ever written on Scripture from the Protestant perspective. And there are plenty of other great books out there. I would also recommend volume 2 of Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (which is out of print, so you’ll have to find it on Bookfinder or ABEBooks). Pay particular attention to the perspecuity of Scripture, as this is the primary sticking point between Rome and Geneva.

One final word to young theologians: build your theology from the older masters. The reason for this is two-fold: 1. Not only are their works tried and true, having been analyzed more often than modern works, but also, 2. The fountain of the Reformed faith is less likely to be quirky than later theologians. So build your theology on Calvin, Turretin, a’Brakel, and Bavinck. This is not to say that modern theologians like Horton and Kelly should not be read. They should be. However, those guys would be the first to admit that you should read the older theologians first. This will give you a stronger and more centered root to your theology.

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

As before, I will offer a brief introduction, sources for further study, and highlights from the document itself.

The author is unknown. We know him as “Mathetes,” but that is merely the Greek word for “student” or “disciple.” He calls himself a “mathetes” of the apostles. Some have come to the conclusion, based on that assertion, that the author knew the apostles personally. Other scholars have denied that this is a necessary inference. Surely yours truly could presently call himself a “mathetes” of the apostles! Estimates of the date of this epistle vary widely. Those who assume it was written by a personal disciple of the apostles date it to the early second century. Those who do not make that assumption date it sometimes at the end of the third century. We know nothing, either, of who Diognetus is, except that he was probably asking questions about Christianity. That is not much to go on, especially since a person could be asking questions from the standpoint of unbelief (even scorn!), or from the standpoint of a new believer. We can probably infer, however, that whoever he was, he was not a mature Christian. That is about all we can say. The nature of the document itself is thoroughly apologetic. In twelve chapters, the epistle starts with the folly of idolatry (chapter 2), moves to an answer of Judaism (chapters 3-4), and ends with a panegyric of the Christian faith (chapters 5-12). Some scholars believe the last two chapters to be spurious, but there is no real way to substantiate such a claim.

To read the document online is easy, as we have both Lightfoot’s translation, and the Roberts-Donaldson translation available. For the original Greek, go here for the text only, and go here for the Patrologia Graeca volume 2 (the epistle itself starts on page 1168). A number of introductions are available on this page.

There are two passages I wish to highlight in this letter. The first is chapter 5, a gorgeous description of Christianity in relation to the world. The writing (which most scholars admit is some of the most polished and beautiful writing of antiquity) is exquisite:

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified.

The whole of that chapter is wonderfully written. I would also like to point out his beautiful words describing justification in chapter 9:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it has been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of god, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous one, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

I would ask this question of Romanists: what does “exchange” mean here? Does not his description imply that the two-way exchange works in the same way? If so, then is our wickedness infused into Christ?

Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians

Our church just purchased the Schaff-edited Early Church Fathers. I have immediately begun to read it. I would like to share my thoughts on what I read. I will do a bit of poking around as well (since this edition is quite old) to see what more modern scholarship has to say on each of these works, though this will by no means be exhaustive. I will offer what is basically a short introduction, a road map through each work, or part of a work.

We start with Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians. It is sometimes called the first epistle, but the so-called second epistle is almost certainly spurious. No reasonable doubts have been raised as to the genuineness of this letter. It is generally dated to the late first century, around 96 AD. Clement of Rome is supposed by the Roman Catholic Church to be the fourth pope. However, as we shall see, his doctrine is hardly what later Romanist theologians would approve, especially on the doctrine of justification.

If you would like to read it online, you can go here, for the Schaff edition I am reading, or you can go here, for Lightfoot’s commentary. The Greek original is available here, in the Patrologia series, or, for a more elegant and streamlined version (with a gorgeous font!), here.

The occasion of this letter was very similar to what prompted Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: division in the church (see especially chapter 3 of our document). In this case, it seems that the congregation was rising up against their leaders. Envy, strife and disorder were marring what had before been a very godly situation (compare chapter 3 with chapters 1 and 2). What follows is an attempt to set forth every possible motive for humility and against division either from the example of those who have gone before, or from Christ Himself, or even from fanciful tales used as an illustration (confer the phoenix in chapter 25). This letter is Scripture-saturated. Indeed, it is remarkable how much Scripture Clement manages to cram into a mere 17 pages!

A brief outline is as follows: I. Praise of the Corinthians pre-strife (1-2); II. The destructiveness of strife (3-6); III. Call to repentance (7-12); IV. Call to humility (13-24); V. Encouragement from resurrection (25-26); VI. General encouragement to holiness (27-30); VII. How we obtain blessing (31-38); VIII. No self-conceit (39); IX. Order in the church (40-44); X. The sin of the Corinthians (45-47); XI. Love (48-55); XII. Final exhortation to submission (56-59).

I want to highlight a few things. Firstly, I want to highlight chapter 32′s statement on justification by faith alone. In the context, Clement is contrasting the holiness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (chapter 31) with the “greatness of the gifts which were given by him” (chapter 32). A footnote indicates that the pronoun “him” is of doubtful reference. The note prefers the understanding “the gifts which were given to Jacob by Him,” i.e., God. This is also Lightfoot’s understanding, even though he acknowledges the awkwardness of the transition to the next sentence’s “from him,” obviously referring to Jacob. Regardless of the meaning of these two sentences, the contrast between works and grace is clear in the middle of chapter 32: “All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will.” The divine passives should be obvious here. Then follows a quotation which should be quoted in full to be appreciated (emphases is mine):

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Note the contrast between “works which we have wrought IN HOLINESS OF HEART” (presumably, this means all works done by a believer) versus “by that faith.” Whatever Clement means by faith in this passage therefore cannot include works done in holiness of heart. Faith does not equal faithfulness in justification. Note that this is in the context of justification.

Clement makes no bones about including works when it comes to sanctification, as is obvious from the immediately succeeding chapters. Someone might point to chapter 35 and claim that the promised gifts are contingent on “casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity.” However, it is clear in this section that Clement is thinking eschatologically. The beginning of the chapter reads “How blessed and wonderful, beloved, are the gifts of God! Life in immortality, splendour in riighteousness, truth in perfect confidence, faith in assurance, self-control in holiness! And all these fall under the cognizance of our understandings (now); what then shalle those things be which are prepared for such as wait for Him?” The Protestant will cheerfully agree that salvation in the broader sense (not just conversion) includes God enabling us to good works as a necessary result of grace (not a foundational cause). However, lest we understand Clement to be taking back what he has given, he goes on to root all blessings in the grace of Christ in chapter 36.

The effect of these chapters on the argument as a whole is to bring back the Corinthians to an understanding of why they cannot boast. Boasting brings envy and divisions. The grace of God, however, precludes the divisions which have wracked the Corinthians. So it is much to Clement’s advantage to press upon them the truth of justification by faith alone. Otherwise, the Corinthians will continue to divide.

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