Innovation & the Doctrine of Justification

Lord-willing, I will graduate in May with a Masters of Divinity in the School of Theology. During my time here, I have been exposed to a lot of thinkers and ideas, and I have been struck by how some scholars are infatuated with novelty. It’s understandable in some ways. I am all for fresh ideas, but there are many very old ideas that need no reformulation. The doctrine of justification is one of them. This doctrine has become one of the most contested doctrines in evangelical theology. Evangelicals used to be known for a robust belief in forensic justification, that sinners are declared to be in the right before God through faith in Jesus Christ. Now however, confusion abounds. One thinks of the New Perspective, the Federal Vision, Evangelicals & Catholics Together, denials of imputation, denials of faith alone as the sole ground of justification on the final day, and a thousand nuances within each of these. With all the dissenting voices, seminary students can lose confidence in their own understanding of justification. The thinking goes, “After all, James Dunn has spent a whole lot more time in his Greek New Testament than I have. And Ed Sanders knows 1st Century history much better than I. And of course, who can resist N.T. Wright’s big picture theology? Have you heard his accent? He must be right.”

I want to encourage every pastor, missionary, biblical counselor, and campus worker to master the precious doctrine of justification. Historically it is been bound up with the gospel itself. Now it has become popular to define the gospel in terms that are much more cosmic, and less individualistic. So Bishop Wright describes the gospel simply as “the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”[1] Of course that is part of the gospel, and of course the gospel is cosmic in its scope, but it is also “ruggedly” individual. Some of these writers are masters of the false dichotomy, as Ligon Duncan puts it. Yes, let’s proclaim the new creation. Yes, let’s push social justice. Yes, let’s teach the unification of Jew and Gentile in Christ. But let us never do these things at the expense of the individual. People matter, and therefore their individual standing before a holy God matters.
Moreover, it is pretty clear that the Apostle Paul thought justification was bound up with the gospel as well. Before expounding on justification in Galatians, he says that anyone who preaches a different gospel is accursed (1:8-9). In Galatians 3:8, Paul writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’ (ESV).” In Romans 1:16-17, Paul writes that the righteousness (same root as justify) of God is revealed in the gospel. So master and be mastered by justification and you will master and be mastered by the gospel.

How can we do this? My best advice would be to study the Bible. Become deeply familiar with Romans and Galatians. Take exegesis classes. I am currently in Dr. Schreiner’s Galatians class and have more than once thought to myself, “Martin Luther knew his Greek New Testament well.” The Bible is our final authority. After gaining a firm handle on the New Testament teaching, one could be helped by the following books by our own faculty: Dr. Vickers’ Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness, Dr. Schreiner’s The Law and Its Fulfillment, and relevant sections in his Pauline and New Testament theologies, and Dr. Seifrid’s monograph, Christ, Our Righteousness. Two other helpful resources are Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul, and John Piper’s The Future of Justification.

So brothers and sisters, learn this doctrine well. Teach it, preach it, live it, and plead with sinners, knowing that our only hope and their only hope for a right standing with God is through faith in Jesus Christ: to him be the glory.

[1] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 133

(Previously published in Towers 1/4/10)