John Fesko on Justification

There has been a resurgence of interest in the Reformed doctrine of justification, especially since the advent of the New Perspective on Paul in the 60’s and 70’s with the publication of Krister Stendahl’s article on the introspective conscience of the West, and E.P. Sanders’s book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. There has been a flurry of responses written, especially in the last ten years, both from Lutherans and from Reformed folk. However, there has not been a single-volume book on the doctrine itself, written by one person, until now. And it is a wonderful book, full of good things. Probably the best single aspect about the book is Fesko’s determination to root justification in the history of salvation. Indeed, he winds up rooting the entire ordo salutis in the historia salutis. However, one can easily see that justification, in particular, must be grounded on the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, or we’re all lost.

Broadly speaking, one can divide up the book into five main parts. Chapters 1 and 2 are introductory, dealing with a broad outline of church history and issues of prolegomena (where Fesko ably defends the unity of theological discourse, one of my passions). Chapters 3-5 deal with justification and biblical theology (as defined in the Vossian sense), treating redemptive history, the covenant of works, and the work of Christ. Chapters 6-8 deal with church history, including a broad historical overview, and the New Perspective on Paul. Chapters 9-13 deal with systematic theological concerns, examining imputation, union, sanctification, the final judgment, and the church. And finally, chapters 14-15 deal with apologetics, with specific reference to the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is really only one thing missing, and John knows it is missing. I had a nice long talk with him about certain aspects of this book, and he was able to clarify many things for me, this one being one of them. I asked him why he did not include a history of the doctrine that focussed on the post-Reformation period of theology (a la Muller). He said that he had a chapter ready on that, but all the other chapters were already long, and he wanted to make sure that contemporary issues were handled. So, he has done his work in that field, but hasn’t put it in this book. Maybe he can write a supplementary pamphlet (or an article for a major journal) and include in it this material.

Let me just say that the treatment is masterful. He has plainly read just about everything that is important, and has dealt fairly and accurately with viewpoints differing from his own. I want to single out for special attention his handling of N.T. Wright’s exegetical arguments. After describing them accurately, he goes on to show why they are wrong, exegetically. Included is discussion of Wright’s definition of righteousness (pp. 221-223), exegesis of Romans 4:1-8, Psalm 106:31, 4Q MMT, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Romans 5:12-21. These arguments are certainly convincing to me, and pose a serious challenge to Wright.

In short, I recommend this book enthusiastically, with two thumbs up. This is the best treatment of the doctrine by one writer since Buchanan.


  1. Richard said,

    October 29, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    I find it quite interesting that Gerhard von Rad in From Genesis to Chronicles writes:

    “Righteouseness” (sedaqah) in the Old Testament sense is not the height of virtue…it is a notion concerned with relationship, and the man who meets the demands of a communal relationship is a “righteous” man. This communal relationship may be a civil and social one, but more often in the Old Testament refers to that relationship with Israel, which Yahweh has enshrined in his covenant. When Yahweh is said to be “righteous,” it means that he is faithful to this covenant relationship that he has condescended to establish. Israel is “righteous” in so far as the nation assents to this covenant relationship, and submits to its cultic and legal ordinances.

  2. greenbaggins said,

    October 29, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Yes, and Von Rad is off his rocker on this issue. So is Wright. Seifrid has demolished this misunderstanding of tsadaq.

  3. Richard said,

    October 29, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I think “demolished” is a bit too strong.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    October 29, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    You would. ;-)

  5. ReformedSinner said,

    October 29, 2008 at 2:22 pm


    But it depends Richard. Was Lane speaking literally, what tone, as a personal letter, or an official legal declaration? Literature informs meaning right?


  6. its.reed said,

    October 29, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Richard: I’m sorry to rub it in, but –

    LOL, ROTHFL, all in good jest ;)


  7. Richard said,

    October 29, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    LOL :-)

  8. Bret McAtee said,

    October 29, 2008 at 4:41 pm


    How does Fesko’s work compare to Buchanans? Would you say one needs to read Fesko if they’ve read Buchanan? How would you compare it to Owen’s work on Justification?

  9. Paul M. said,

    October 30, 2008 at 4:46 am

    FWIW, I wrote a review of that book a few weeks ago

  10. greenbaggins said,

    October 30, 2008 at 7:46 am

    Bret, good questions. I would say that none of those three works are superfluous. All three are outstanding treatments. I learned something from all three. If at all possible, every minister ought to read all three. The thing Fesko does that the others don’t is to place justification in its historia salutis context. Owen and Buchanan were almost solely concerned with the ordo salutis issues rising from the Roman Catholic church.

  11. October 30, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Humorous comment ReformedSinner. If I may add some thoughts into this jesting discussion…

    Just for some perspective, of the various Hebrew Bible, Early Judaism, and Christian Origins scholars who know of Seifrid’s essays in JVN, I am not aware of many who think he did anything of consequence. Most reject his work (and some do not consider it worth the time to read), think it specious, and go on discussing “righteousness” in terms of YHWH’s faithfulness to his covenant and promises for many OT and Early Jewish texts, though with varying valences and nuances depending upon how different texts present reality. As an aside, Al Groves agreed with this “demolished” understanding of righteousness, especially when it came to Isaiah 40-55. I still vividly remember the question during his Isaiah lectures the last year he did them.

    Most scholars who “reject” Wright, von Rad, etc., do so not because they think a position like Seifrid’s is correct, but because they object to framing the discussion in Protestant categories—-which Wright, von Rad, and many others still do at some levels.

    The main exceptions to this are most of those who contributed to Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2, which is not really a surprise. They also accept Carson’s analysis of what the contributors in volume 1 said! See also others who, for theological reasons, just really want Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2 to be right(eous). I am not saying that these scholars are necessarily bad scholars, I simply disagree with them. But, to be realistic, if I with my weighty and consequential opinions disagree with someone, could he or she have anything worthwhile to say…? : )

    While I find Seifrid to be a better and more careful scholar than many of the critics of the NPP out there, basic linguistic errors, straw-men (in a major way!), special-pleading, twisting of the data, and un-argued Protestant assumptions imposed on ancient historical data, etc., plague his work. Just to be clear, I say this as someone who has many problems with various NPP scholars.

    It may be the case that what most of contemporary scholarship on ancient Judaism and New Testament takes for granted now is wrong: that traditional Protestant-Lutheran understandings of “righteousness” in ancient Hebrew Bible and Judean literature are misguided and that something close to an emphasis on God’s faithfulness is in view often in texts discussing YHWH’s righteousness. Indeed, getting to those of greater concern to many here, I have problems with how Wright and Dunn tackle these issues. BUT, I have much greater problems with people like Seifrid on all this.

    Lastly, if you read Seifrid’s essay carefully it does not really say what Reformed people should want it to say. Though he rejects most of the things the Reformed do not like in Wright et. all, he still sets forward a view that actually includes some of the same kind of elements the Reformed find distasteful.

    Can we still be friends?

  12. David R. said,

    October 30, 2008 at 10:26 am

    I really enjoyed the book. I have one question though, which maybe someone here can help me with. Why is there no discussion (or even mention) of the relationship of the doctrine of justification to the pactum salutis? I found that curious, since Fesko took such pains to relate justification to so many other doctrines and issues.

  13. Richard said,

    October 30, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    If I may pose a question; If von Rad’s et aldefinition was proven beyond all reasonable doubt would you change your definition of ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’?

  14. October 30, 2008 at 6:09 pm


    That is easy. This has already happened and we have not changed our positions : ). Well, slightly more accurately, the traditional Protestant-Lutheran views have been thoroughly critiqued and dispelled and we still refuse to modify our understandings in any way that matters.

    A general consensus having to do with covenant faithfulness continues to emerge for many texts, though various scholars differ in their emphases. Both issues of apocalyptic-vindication and communal-definition color the semantic field of much “righteousness” language in much Early Jewish literature. Such issues function together and remain inseparable for most strands of Early Judaism of which we are aware.

    The most tweaking you generally get is the type of thing Moo does. He acknowledges these “other issues,” labels them background lesser-emphasized issues, and DECLARES some form of the traditional readings best. Of course, as we all know, a declaration need not have anything to do with historical reality… ; )

    Ok, I know the controversial and disagreeable nature of what I wrote. Try to think of me saying this across the dinner and/or bar table while we are all drinking some good beer together…perhaps Arrogant Bastard? Perhaps some sarcasm, jesting, and laughing could be involved?

  15. Nick said,

    November 3, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    I’m glad I came across this blog.
    I want to start off saying I am Catholic and believe the Catholic position on justification fits the Biblical evidence the best (esp in places like Rom 4, Eph 2 and Gal 3), so I was glad to come across your post on this new book.

    I have a few questions which I was wondering if the book addresses, because if the book does not address them I consider it an incomplete look at the Biblical evidence.
    So, my questions are, does Fesko’s book:

    1) Do a lexical analysis of the Greek term ‘Logizomai’ (the word translated as ‘impute/reckon/count’) and how Paul uses it in the NT?

    2) Include passages like 1 Cor 6:10-11 in the sections dealing with the Ordo Salutis?

    3) Mention Abraham’s faith in Gen 12 (Heb 11:8; Gal 3:8) and explain how he was a believer before Gen 15:6?

    4) Include Rom 4:18-22 in his exegesis of Rom 4:1-8?

    5) Look into how Original Sin is understood differently by Catholics and Protestants?

    If these issues (and a few others) are not addressed in Fesko’s book, I would have to consider it an insufficient look at all the available Biblical evidence and thus not enough to convince this Catholic of the Protestant position.

    I’m glad you said Fesko addresses Ps 106:30f, though I wonder how he gets around it without some type of equivocation.

    God Bless

  16. Joshua W.D. Smith said,

    November 7, 2008 at 11:12 am

    I haven’t the time to read everything on the NPP justification controversy, but I’m curious if I could get the shorthand version of why the latter part of that von Rad conclusion is wrong:

    “When Yahweh is said to be “righteous,” it means that he is faithful to this covenant relationship that he has condescended to establish. Israel is “righteous” in so far as the nation assents to this covenant relationship, and submits to its cultic and legal ordinances.”

    I’ll admit to not liking the first part of the quote, since it sounds a little squishy, but if reality is ultimately personal, then that means that all virtue is ultimately relational: to be rightly related to God is to be righteous. In the reverse, God’s special covenantal dealings are what show His character most clearly, more so than even creation (although that was also covenantal), then the righteousness that is His attribute would in fact be most clearly established in His covenantal administration. So, when it says that God is righteous, why is it a problem to say this means chiefly that He is faithful to His covenant? Or why is it a problem to say that for Israel, righteousness was their assenting to the relationship and submitting to the cultic and legal ordinances (i.e., worshiping God alone in the way that He requires and following the Law, which was ultimately, through the sacrifices especially, meant to point them to the righteousness from faith, Rom. 10:6-11)? If I agree in a qualified manner with von Rad’s point here, should I alert my pastor and session?

    Also, where are Wright’s views of righteousness laid out most clearly? I haven’t read his work on Paul, just on the gospels (which is outstanding and to which I was first introduced at WSC under Peter Jones).

  17. Jenson said,

    November 20, 2008 at 3:19 am

    Hi GB,

    Thanks for this info. I might get this book, depending on how you and your readers answer this question:

    How does this book measure up with James Buchanan’s The Doctrine of Justification (Banner of Truth)?

    Jenson Lim
    Birmingham, UK

  18. greenbaggins said,

    November 20, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Jenson, welcome to my blog. Having read both books, I will say that they are actually quite similar. Fesko builds on Buchanan in many ways to provide a treatment of the doctrine that deals with more recent challenges, such as the New Perspective on Paul. I would certainly say that neither book makes the other outdated or irrelevant or superfluous.

  19. Jenson said,

    November 20, 2008 at 9:06 am

    Thank GB for this input. I will get this book.

    I started a series a few weeks ago at a Preachers’ Class, entitled “Justification – Then and Now”. I am on the “Then” part, but you can imagine how complex the “Now” part would be!

    Thanks again for this post. Keep up the good work.


  20. greenbaggins said,

    November 20, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Nick, I’m sorry I haven’t seen your comment. Welcome to my blog. I would say that Fesko does address 1 (in his discussion of the definition of the term “justify”), 2 (in his discussion of the Regensburg Colloquy, pg. 350), and 3 (pp. 175-176), but not 4 and 5. Inevitably, a Reformed understanding and a Catholic understanding will have different agendas.

    I am willing to fill in the lacunae left by Fesko’s book myself and say that presumably the point about Romans 4:18-25 from the Catholic position is verse 22, namely, that the faithfulness is the reason why his faith was counted to him as righteousness. First of all, I interpret the preposition “eis” in that verse as telic. Faith was counted towards righteousness, with righteousness being the end in view. In other words, it is still the alien righteousness of Christ that is imputed. But Christ’s righteousness is what faith looks to in order to be justified. We must keep in mind the nature of faith as having an object, namely Christ and His benefits. The fact that Paul goes on to say that faith continues on does not negate this point, since Paul also needs to show that it was a true faith. But also the immediate antecedent of the “therefore” (dio) in verse 22 is verse 21. Abraham was fully convinced (divine passive there!) that God was able to do what He promised. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. This does not turn faith into a work, but rather shows the true nature of faith as resting in someone else.

    As to original sin, I would direct your attention to Henri Blocher’s book of that name, wherein he deals fairly and thoroughly with the differences between the RCC and the Reformed view of original sin.

  21. greenbaggins said,

    November 20, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Joshua, the reason why the “covenantal faithfulness” model doesn’t work is that God’s righteousness is much more concerned with His own character and the inherent righteousness God has within Himself. The law comes from God’s own character, and to that law God is Himself in line with it. The context in which tsadaq is found much more nearly approaches creation contexts rather than covenantal contexts (this is Mark Seifrid’s argument). There are a few places where righteousness is discussed in the context of the covenant. However, that is not the majority of contexts by any means.

  22. Ryan Ray said,

    May 14, 2013 at 11:51 am


    I recently began reading this book and I found Fesko’s comments on Edwards very surprising in Chapter 1. Would you agree with his assessment of Edwards in Chapter 1? Thanks

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