Affirmations on Justification and Covenant-Keeping: An Outline
Among evangelicals, and particularly among the Reformed, there is currently a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the views of others on justification. This is due in some part perhaps to insufficient clarity on the part of some in expressing their views. It is also due to a failure on the part of others to listen closely to what is actually said, rather than "reading in" or trying to fit everything into one's own set of concepts.
Given the many factors in this struggle, I do not expect to end the debate. It is my hope, however, that a few clear affirmations and explanations will be of some small assistance in the promotion of peace.
1. Christ in His Person and work is the sole ground of our acceptance with God.
i. Jesus Christ is the preeminent Justified One (1 Tim. 3:16). Even as His death was our representative condemnation, so too His resurrection was our representative justification. He "was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification" (Rom. 4:25).
ii. Whereas Adam's sin of disobedience brought all under condemnation, Christ's obedience accomplishes justification. It is His obedience by which we are constituted righteous (Rom. 5:19); it is His self-offering which turns away the wrath of the Father from those who belong to Him (Rom 3:25; 1 Jn. 4:10).
iii. Because Christ is the Justified One, justification is found only in union with Him. In this way, His obedience is reckoned to be ours. In a context discussing justification, Paul says that those who have put on Christ have become heirs to the promise by faith (Gal. 3:26-29). There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Thus in our view, union with Christ does not "replace" justification, as some have wrongly charged; it rather provides the context for justification. We are "accepted in the Beloved;" in Him is our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins (Eph. 1:6-7).
iv. The obedience of Christ which is ours in Him includes not only His passive obedience - His obedience to the will of the Father in suffering our penalty in death (Phi. 2:8), but also His active obedience, by which as a faithful Son, in our place He perfectly fulfilled the divine requirements given by the Father. This obedience is particularly typified by His faithfulness in the wilderness and Garden temptations at the beginning and end of His ministry, and is comprised of all the perfect ways in which He recapitulated the history of Adam, Israel, and the believer. We are thus justified because we are given a new history: the history of Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined.
2. Faith is the sole instrument which appropriates Christ (and therefore justification in Him).
i. God does not require a series of good works in order for us to be accepted by Him through Christ. Indeed, Christ's work is necessary precisely because our works cannot stand before the perfect holy scrutiny of God. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5); God imputes righteousness apart from works (Rom. 4:6).
ii. The only instrument which unites us to Christ and therefore appropriates His justification is faith. The justification of the ungodly can only come about because faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom. 4:5).
iii. God's acceptance of faith is not because faith is somehow inherently "worthy" or meritorious. Rather, faith is accepted as the proper and obedient response to the promise which God gives to us in Christ (1 Jn. 3:23; Jn. 6:29; Acts 5:32).
iv. Saving faith is not merely assent. While there is a content to faith (which varies according to ability and knowledge), and thus assent is rightly identified as an aspect of faith, faith also entails the placing of one's trust in another: namely, Jesus Christ. We are called, not merely to believe things about Christ, but to believe upon Him, in Him: to place our confidence, our trust, in Him.
Canons of Dort I.4: "But such as receive [the gospel], and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them."
v. Saving faith is not to be separated from repentance. Paul parallels "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21; cf. 1 Thess. 1:8-9) as mutually explanatory phrases which identify the gospel he preached. "Repentance" does not mean "good works," but rather denotes a turning. Turning to Christ entails turning from all that would compete with Him as Saviour and Lord. Thus repentance and saving faith are one indivisible act, and good works are the fruit (not cause) of that act. This is why Scripture speak of works or fruit which are fitting for repentance (Matt. 3:8): not that good works are repentance, but that the necessary and fitting outcome of true repentance is a life of good works.
vi. Saving faith, the faith which justifies, is an active, lively response to God in Christ. In the context of discussing justification, Paul says that circumcision and uncircumcision avail nothing; that which avails is "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6). This describes the kind of faith which is effectual: a lively, working faith. However, Paul does not ascribe this effect to love, or to love and faith combined. Only faith is identified as availing; "working through love" identifies its effects and lively character.
vii. We say that faith is obedience (Rom. 1:5; cf. 2.iii above). This is not at all the same, however, as saying that obedience is faith. The only act of obedience which is instrumental to justification is faith, not the other obedient fruit of faith. The obedient character of faith, however, does determine the nature of our total response to God. A faith which claims to lay hold of Christ but declines to obey Him is not justifying faith, because it lacks the shape of saving faith. A faith that is obedient in response to the promises of the gospel will also be obedient in response to the other requirements God gives us in Christ. Union with Christ involves more than justification; hence the faith by which that union is given, maintained and expressed is necessarily shaped by all that Christ is for us.
viii. Although faith is the sole instrument of justification, it is never alone, for when God gives faith, He gives all necessary graces with it. Justification is not an abstract gift; it is given in union with Christ, and union with Christ imparts to us all things necessary for life and godliness. Yet those other graces are not the ground of justification, nor the instrument whereby justification is appropriated.
ix. This lively faith is not a natural characteristic of man, but a gift of God. Salvation from first to last, including faith, is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Every aspect of our salvation, including saving faith, was procured for us by Christ through His mediatorial work, and is made ours by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.
Westminster Conf. XI.2: "Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied by all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love."
Second Helvetic XV.6: "Wherefore, in this matter [justification] we speak not of a feigned, vain, or dead faith, but of a lively and quickening faith; which, for Christ (who is life, and gives life), whom it apprehends, both is indeed, and is so called, a lively faith, and does prove itself to be lively by lively works."
Canons of Dort III/IV.14: "He who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also."
3. Faith is the sole instrument which maintains union with Christ.
i. Covenant-keeping is mandated in Scripture. The Bible warns strongly against "drawing back to perdition" (cf. Heb. 10:39). Those who persevere to the end will be saved. For this reason, God has appointed excommunication as censure against covenant-breaking, and Paul warns that those who attempt to be justified by law have "become estranged from Christ" and "fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4).
ii. However, this is not "maintenance of salvation by way of works." While it is true that various sins often occasion covenant-breaking, yet Scripture does teach us to view covenant-keeping as a matter of faith. In the text cited above (3.i), the writer says: "we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul" (Heb. 10:39). While we know that, in their covenant-breaking, the children of Israel in the wilderness committed various sins such as fornication and idolatry, yet Hebrews 3 repeatedly parallels their disobedience and rebellion with unbelief. They could not enter the land of rest "because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:19). Thus the warning to Christians is to beware lest there be "an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;" this is paralleled with becoming "hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:12-13).
iii. This faith-centredness of covenant-keeping is not surprising, particularly since Christ Himself is identified as the new covenant (Is. 42:6; 49:8). Covenant-breaking is thus termed as spurning Christ's sanctifying blood (Heb. 10:29), as turning away from Him who called us in the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6), and as becoming estranged from Christ (Gal. 5:4). Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17); hence, properly understood, the doctrine of union with Christ does not undermine sola fide, but reinforces it.
iv. Since Christ is the new covenant, and it is in union with Him that justification and all other gifts of salvation are to be found (see e.g. Col. 1:21-23), God's Word calls upon us to remain in Christ by faith, and not to rest upon a one-time event in our past as the act of faith which saved us. "For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end" (Heb. 3:14). Paul said that the Galatians "ran well" (Gal. 5:7) and had "begun in the Spirit" (Gal. 3:3), but he does not allow them to be complacent regarding the present due to that good beginning; he rather warns them that they must stand fast in the liberty given by Christ (Gal. 5:1), through the Spirit eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness by faith (Gal. 5:5). Because justification is a gift of union with Christ, repudiation of Christ is an unbelieving repudiation of justification. Hence Scripture calls upon us to a living faith, a faith that clings to Christ from beginning to end.
Belgic Conf. 22: "And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins."
Soli Deo gloria.