Hilary of Poitiers on Justification

Hilary of Poitiers was a French bishop of the fourth century. It is disputed by Roman Catholics and Protestants as to what Hilary taught regarding justification. The most relevant passage comes from his commentary on Matthew chapter 8, paragraph 6. Here is the translation in The Fathers of the Church series (the passage under consideration is the healing of the paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins):

A pattern of the truth is followed in these events, even as an image of the future is fulfilled in the words. It disturbed the scribes that sin was forgiven by a man (for they considered that Jesus Christ was only a man) and that he forgave sin, for which the Law was not able to grant absolution, since faith alone justifies. When the Lord discerned the murmuring of the scribes, he said that it was easy for the Son of Man to forgive sins on earth. For truly no one is able to forgive sins except God alone. He who forgave, therefore, is God because no one can forgive except God. For the Word of God which abides in that Man offers to a man healing, and there was no difficulty for him to do and speak since it is given to him to perform everything that he said he would do.

The particular sentence under dispute is obviously the one that mentions that faith alone justifies. In Latin, the sentence runs “Et remissum est ab eo, quod lex laxare non poterat; fides enim sola justificat” (from Migne PL volume 9, column 961). The author of The Thoughts of Francis Turretin blog has a lengthy article on Hilary, including a very brief mention of this passage, arguing that the passage is in itself clear. However, Matt1618 has a lengthy argument against a “Protestant” understanding of the passage. We will assess Matt1618’s argument carefully.

To put it briefly, Matt1618 argues from what Hilary does not say in order to import a whole lot of Roman Catholic theology into the silences. Observe case number one: Matt1618 says, “Here it is apparent St. Hilary is speaking about initial justification.” I would answer “yes and no.” I would agree that Hilary is talking about a moment in time. I would disagree that Hilary implies a process that starts with initial justification. Hilary does not mention any kind of process at all. Instead, he is simply contrasting what the Law can do versus what faith can do. Faith justifies, and the Law cannot.

Case number two: Matt1618 says, “He does not mean or say that once one is justified, one cannot lose that justification through sin as Calvin or Luther would say.” In Matt1618’s eagerness to prevent anachronistic readings of Hilary, he neglects to mention that, although Hilary does not speak of an unlosable justification, that does not imply that Hilary is speaking about a losable justification. It is an argument from silence on Matt1618’s part. Hilary doesn’t address the question of whether justification is losable here at all. In the context following (paragraph 7), Hilary does speak of irrevocable gifts like resurrection, and a state wherein “sickness and sorrow will affect our bodies no more.” But he nowhere in the context mentions a losable justification, whether by words or ideas.

Case number three: Matt1618 says, “Of course, just as in other fathers, St. Hilary has faith explicitly linked to baptism so the reference to faith here does not mean that justification is without baptism.” Excuse me, but where does Hilary explicitly link justification to baptism? In the entirety of chapter 8 of the commentary, neither the word “baptism” nor the idea of baptism appear. The closest we get is “deep waters” in section 4. However, since Hilary is there talking about “a desire for the world instigated by demonic forces,” this is hardly applicable to baptism. At this point I am wondering if Matt1618 and I are reading the same text.

Case number four: Matt1618 says, “Nor does he say that following initial justification that sacraments or works are not necessary to maintain that state of justification.” Again an argument from what Hilary does not say. Hilary doesn’t here say that the sacraments or works are necessary to maintain such a state of justification, either. Again, he simply doesn’t address the question. He is not, in this passage, interested in the maintenance of the state of being justified, but rather the mechanism by which we become justified, and that is by faith alone.

Case number five: Matt1618 says, “He just spells out here that the law without faith, in and of itself does not justify, something any Catholic would hold to.” This is precisely what Hilary does NOT say. Hilary is saying that the Law is unable to grant absolution (the forgiveness of sins), since faith alone (i.e., without the Law) justifies. In order for Matt1618 to be correct, Hilary would have had to say something like this: “The law without faith is powerless, but the law with faith can justify.” This is almost, though not quite, the opposite of what Hilary actually said. Hilary said that the Law is not involved in justification from our side. Only faith justifies.

Case number six: Matt1618 then adduces passages from Hilary’s On the Trinity and later in the Matthew commentary, none of which are talking about justification. The passage from 9.5 from Hilary’s work on the Trinity is talking about the importance of good works (which no Protestant but an antinomian would deny). If Matt1618’s interpretation is correct, then Protestants ignore the place of good works entirely. This is manifestly an incorrect interpretation of Protestantism. But it is obvious that Hilary is not talking about justification, but about the behavior of the justified.

Section 18.8 of the Matthew commentary is talking about the power of the keys, not justification. That there should be “a tremendous fear” is certainly the goal of what Hilary writes in this section. That Hilary is talking about justification is not clear at all. He is talking about the ability of the church to make assessments about the spiritual state of a member of the church.

It becomes clear, then, in the course of this investigation, that Hilary taught that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law. While his theology was not as developed on this point as the Reformers would be, it is not difficult to see the continuity of Hilary’s statement here with the Reformers’ teaching on justification.

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1 Clement 32 and Justification

I was reading Thomas Schreiner’s recent book Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, and he referenced this chapter of 1 Clement as a proof that at least some of the early church fathers believed in justification by faith alone. He doesn’t fall prey to the anachronistic fallacy of thinking that Clement’s doctrine was as clear on this point as the Reformers, but more that it was in line with what the Reformers would later say. This chapter is disputed in its meaning between Protestants and Catholics. I will put both an English translation and the original Greek here, and then discuss it in dialogue with Protestant and Catholic interpretations.

English: 1 Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. 2 For from him have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” 3 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. 4 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.

Greek: 1 Ἐάν τις καθ᾿ ἓν ἕκαστον εἰλικρινῶς κατανοήσῃ, ἐπιγνώσεται μεγαλεῖα τῶν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ δεδομένων δωρεῶν. 2 ἐξ αὐτοῦ γὰρ ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευῖται πάντες οἱ λειτουργοῦντες τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐξ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος Ἰησοῦς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα. ἐξ αὐτοῦ βασιλεῖς καὶ ἄρχοντες καὶ ἡγούμενοι κατὰ τὸν Ἰούδαν· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ σκῆπτρα αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἐν μικρᾷ δόξῃ ὑπάρχουσιν, ὡς ἐπαγγειλαμένου τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς οἱ ἀστέρες τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. 3 πάντες οὖν ἐδοξάσθησαν καὶ ἐμεγαλύνθησαν οὐ δι᾿ αὐτῶν ἢ τῶν ἔργων αὐτῶν ἢ τῆς δικαιοπραγίας ἧς κατειργάσαντο, ἀλλὰ διὰ τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ. 4 καὶ ἡμεῖς οὖν, διὰ θελήματος αὐτοῦ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ κληθέντες, οὐ δι᾿ ἑαυτῶν δικαιούμεθα, οὐδὲ διὰ τῆς ἡμετέρας σοφίας ἢ συνέσεως ἢ εὐσεβείας ἢ ἔργων ὧν κατειργασάμεθα ἐν ὁσιότητι καρδίας, ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς πίστεως, δι᾿ ἧς πάντας τοὺς ἀπ᾿ αἰῶνος ὁ παντοκράτωρ θεὸς ἐδικαίωσεν· ᾧ ἔστω ἡ δόξα εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. ἀμήν.

Protestant interpretations include Ingolfsland, Turretin Fan, and my own previous post. For Roman Catholic treatments, look at Bryan Cross, Taylor Marshall, and Matt1618. This will be enough to get on with.

What must first be done is to clear away misconceptions of Protestant and Catholic positions alike in order to arrive at the real issue. For instance, Marshall argues that Protestants have misunderstood the Catholic position for a long time:

The Council of Trent, like Pope Saint Clement confirm that works do not merit the grace of justification. Many Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches. As Trent decreed, the justified “increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ” by means of “faith co-operating with good works,” to use the phrase of the Council and that of Saint James. Catholics do not earn the initial grace of justification.

It might very well be true to say that Protestants have misunderstood Catholics on the initial point of what Catholics describe as the process of justification. What Catholics believe is that the grace of God infuses the beginning of righteousness into a person, which infusion is by grace, not by works. Then, throughout life, assisted by the sacraments (in which grace is received), believers co-operate with the grace of God by their works (which come from God-infused virtues). Justification is thus a process that occurs throughout life, and is not complete in this life, though it has its beginning in baptism. To put it in a linear fashion: God’s infusing grace at baptism resulting in the beginning of a believer’s own God-given righteousness->conversion->believer’s cooperation with grace by good works and by use of the sacraments->death->purgatory (for most)->final judgment justification.

Protestants, of course, do not believe that justification is a process, but a one-time act or declaration, based not on infused righteousness, but on imputed righteousness. That righteousness is then not ours but Christ’s. It is not delayed until judgment, but rather the judgment is brought forward in time to the point of initial faith. The transfer of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us happens outside us, not inside us, as RC’s believe with their view of infused righteousness.

What then, do the Catholics say about this passage in Clement, positively speaking? Putting together Matt’s, Taylor’s, and Bryan’s arguments, we come up with something like this. 1. Clement is speaking about being transferred from death to life, from being in the first Adam to being in the second Adam, and this transfer does not occur by means of our works, but by faith (Cross); 2. The faith in view is a faith informed by love (from Galatians 6 and Romans 5:5, Cross). 3. Clement is not speaking of justification by faith alone, but it is evident that we are justified by our works from chapter 30 of the letter (Marshall and Matt1618). 4. As quoted above, the initial grace of the justification process is not merited by our works; 5. Working on one’s own power is not sufficient for justification (Matt1618). 6. The works that contribute to our justification are done by God’s grace (Matt1618).

It is to be noted here that an issue arises that also arose in my debates with Doug Wilson on faith’s aliveness. Protestants believe that faith alone justifies, and that the aliveness of faith, while present even at the moment of justification, is not directly relevant to the question of justification. In other words, faith does not justify because it is alive. This would make faith’s aliveness into a ground for justification. Rather, faith justifies because of the Person on Whom that faith rests. Christ’s person and work is the ground of our justification. This leads us to a serious caricature of the Protestant position that Catholics hold. Catholics seem to believe (this seems evident particularly in Cross’s treatment) that because Protestants do not believe that our love for God plays any part in our justification, that therefore Protestants must believe in justification by a dead faith. The faith that justifies is alive, but does not justify because it is alive. It justifies because of its connection to the One Who justifies us. This leads, though, directly to a counter misinterpretation of Catholics by Protestants, who fail to make the distinction that Catholics make between virtue and works. Cross puts it this way:

Protestant theology tends not to give conceptual space to agape as a virtue, seeing it only as a work. Scott Clark, for example, denies that faith and agape are virtues. And that tends to lead to a misunderstanding on the part of Protestants, who think that when Catholics talk about faith-informed-by-agape, it means faith accompanied by works. If it meant that, then we could have no confidence that baptized babies who die before reaching an age in which they can do any works, could be saved. But, we believe that at baptism, the virtues of faith, hope, and agape are infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the infant is justified at that very moment, because he now has faith-informed-by-agape, even though has not yet done a single good work.

In other words, for RC’s, virtue can be infused and received without any works being present, and that therefore the justification of a baby, while still by an infusion of grace, consists of an infusion of faith informed by virtue, specifically faith, hope, and love. The difficulty with this formulation becomes obvious when we compare this version of “virtue” with faith itself. If faith without works is dead, then how can virtue without works be alive? Cross seems to be allowing for a situation where a virtue can be present without any manifestation of it whatsoever.

So now the question remains: what does Clement mean? Does 1 Clement 30:3 (the operative phrase is “being justified by works and not by words”) control somehow our understanding of 32? Ingolfsland argues that it does not, and that Clement is simply speaking in the manner of James:

As we have seen, however, this phrase is part of a longer train of thought that can be traced back to First Clement 26:1 where Clement is talking about holiness that is the result of “good faith.” Clement is not speaking of people who need to be saved but to those who are already “his own portion” (1 Clem. 29:1; 30:1). Clement is arguing that those who already belong to the Lord should be careful to do good works. It is in this context that Clement must be understood when he continues, “keeping ourselves from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words” (1 Clem. 30:3).

As might be guessed, I find Ingolfsland’s argument more convincing than Taylor’s and Matt1618’s, because Ingolfsland understands 30:3 in its own context (both immediate and larger), whereas Marshall and Matt1618 do not make the attempt to argue what 30:3 means in its immediate and larger context. I commend Ingolfsland’s entire article on the question as a well-argued paper that indirectly answers the RC arguments.

Identity Crisis

There can be no doubt that many, many people are experiencing identity crises these days. How people see themselves is usually determined by what other people think about them, or else it becomes something that they set a standard for themselves. Of course, the “high self-esteem” gurus have held the field for decades now. The problem, they say, is that people simply have too low a self-esteem, and that we need to encourage people to build up their self-esteem. Is this the answer?

While I have several important theological differences with Tim Keller, the little booklet he wrote called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is not one of them. He starts off discussing the problem of self-esteem, and, quoting Lauren Slater’s New York Times article of 2002, notes that it is rather high self-esteem, or hubris, or pride, that seems to be the problem, whether it is that someone has an over-inflated view of themselves, or an under-inflated (implying a previously inflated) view. The imagery of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3-4 describing ego and hubris uses the amusing metaphor of bellows at a forge: empty, painful, busy, and fragile.

The biggest problems in this area are that we look for approval in the wrong places, and by the wrong people. A blogger can write just to please his readership and get that many more hits. Or, a preacher can tell a congregation what their itching ears want to hear. The problem, as Keller points out, is that looking for approval in these places is a black hole (citing the example of Madonna’s rather honest self-portraiture), a bottomless pit that can never be filled.

What matters is not how other people evaluate us, nor how we evaluate ourselves, but what God says about us. This simultaneously results in a feeling of being filled, contrary to the bottomless emptiness of what humanity can do in ascribing worth to people; and also, a justification in God’s courtroom. Keller connects true biblical self-worth to justification. We are worth what God says we are worth, and His declaration of innocence (Keller mentions the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) defines our worth. The quote of the book is on page 39:

For the Buddhist…performance leads to the verdict. If you are a Muslim, performance leads to the verdict. All this means that every day, you are in the courtroom, every day you are on trial. That is the problem. But Paul is saying that Christianity, the verdict leads to performance.

Of course, Keller is not addressing the fine-tuned discussions between Westminster East and Westminster West about the relative order and relationship of justification and sanctification. At any rate, contrary to the contemporary grace movement, Keller does not shy away from performance. One might wish that he would have included a statement to the effect that even the performance is based on the enabling grace of God. Presumably, however, he would not disagree with that. All in all, a helpful little exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.

Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?

People often ask the question of whether good works are necessary for salvation. Of course, a great deal depends on how one defines salvation in the question. The Bible’s usage is various. It can mean the forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:77). It can mean the future glorified state (Romans 13:11). Surely, it can mean the entire order of salvation as well. Normally, of course, we refer it to simple conversion, “when we were saved.” Realizing these different aspects of our salvation is important to understanding the place of good works.

The other word that can be defined differently in the equation is the word “necessary.” Necessary can mean more than one thing as well. Is the noise of a cannon necessary to its being fired? Yes, but not as the cause of the firing of the cannon, but as part of the effect. Similarly, the time when something is necessary is important to consider. Is something necessary before something else, or after that something else? So, with his usual care and precision, Turretin helps us to understand just how works are necessary to salvation (17.3.14):

Works can be considered in three ways: either with reference to justification or sanctification or glorification. They are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently and meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end; yea, as the beginning to the complement because grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.

Are works necessary for salvation? Yes, as long as we understand our terms correctly, and so avoid both legalism and antinomianism. If we identify good works as necessary for justification in a constitutive way or a causative way, we have lapsed into legalism. Rather, good works are related to justification much as the noise of a cannon is related to the shot itself. The noise obviously does not constitute the cannonball flying through the air, nor does the noise cause the cannonball to fly through the air. But the noise is always there accompanying and resulting from the cannonball being fired.

Conversely, if we deny any relation of good works to justification, then we lapse into antinomianism. One simply cannot be truly justified without at the same time having the sanctification process start. We cannot separate justification and sanctification.

One last thing ought to be mentioned here. It is fatal to over-react to one error by lapsing into the other error. We can see this happen in history (Richard Baxter’s neonomianism as an over-reaction to the antinomianism of his day comes to mind). The way to react to the one error is to come back to the straight and narrow central path of the gospel that addresses ALL our needs with regard to sin: its condemning power, its reigning power, and its existing power. Justification answers the condemning power of sin. Sanctification answers the reigning power of sin. Glorification answers the existence of sin. Our good works, empowered by the Holy Spirit are a necessary part of the whole picture, in the way that Turretin explained above.

Quote of the Week

This month’s quote of the week (!) is from Geerhardus Vos, my favorite theologian of all time. It is located in volume 4 of his Reformed Dogmatics, which just became available. Volume 4 covers soteriology, and this quotation comes from the chapter on justification (p. 173):

33. What should we answer when someone says that in justification, declaring us to be righteous, God does not act according to truth, since in ourselves we are still full of sin and unrighteousness?

a) God’s judgment pronounced in justification does not mean that we possess a perfect inherent righteousness. If God said that, he would be making an untrue declaration. But He does not do that.

b) God’s judgment would likewise be untrue if He imputed to us an imperfect righteousness of the Mediator as if it were perfect. This would be ex injuira (by injustice). But this, too, is not the case. Nothing at all is lacking from the righteousness of Christ.

c) God’s judgment would be precisely untrue if He declared us righteous on the basis of our persistently imperfect subjective righteousness. On Rome’s position, a justification according to truth during this life is impossible.

d) The truthfulness of God’s judgment rests on the truthfulness of imputation. This is no fiction. In reality, God ascribes the merits of Christ to our account. To deny that this is a reality is also to deny the reality of the atonement, in which, conversely, our sins are imputed to Christ. If the mediator can occupy our legal position without that detracting from the truthfulness of God, so also we can occupy the legal position of the Mediator, and God’s judgment concerning that can be fully according to truth.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

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.

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.

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