There are few doctrines since the 16th century that have caused more debate than justification. And for good reason too, since the doctrine of justification is at the very root of what we believe about salvation and our right standing before God. In our own day justification continues to take center stage, but my guess is that if Martin Luther were alive today he would be surprised to find out that there are not only two but now five views on justification. Given the diversity of positions on the subject, a views book on justification is well overdue.
James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy have put together Justification: Five Views, a volume to be commended for pulling together key representatives from each tradition. Additionally, Beilby and Eddy have written a resourceful historical survey that will prove valuable in introducing readers to the issues at stake. While they are not able to go into great depth on any one particular tradition, nevertheless, they paint the landscape well—so well, actually, that it becomes obvious that there may even be more than five views on justification!
Out of all five views, the two views I found most disappointing were those by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, representing the Deification position (or the New Finnish view of Luther), and Gerald O’Collins and Oliver P. Rafferty, representing the Roman Catholic position. Kärkkäinen does a fine job explaining his position: (1) Luther’s view of salvation includes not only justification but theosis, thereby setting it in continuity with Eastern Orthodoxy. (2) Justification for Luther is a real-ontic “participation in God through the indwelling of Christ in the heart of the believer through the Spirit.” (3) Contrary to traditional readings of Luther, justification means both declaring righteous and making righteous, which puts Luther in line with Catholic theology. Therefore, justification is more than a forensic declaration; “it is an act and process of making righteous.” (4) Justification “means not only sanctification, but also good works, since Christ present in faith makes the Christian a ‘christ’ to the neighbor.”
But Kärkkäinen’s view is problematic on a number of levels. First, Kärkkäinen and the New Finnish view have misinterpreted Luther. As both Michael Horton and Michael Bird observe in their responses, if Luther believed that justification meant both a declaring righteous and also a making righteous, why in the world would Luther have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church? Second, Kärkkäinen’s deification view flirts, whether intentionally or unintentionally I don’t know, with panentheism, obscuring the Creator-creature distinction. While to some this might sound extreme, it is hard to see how Kärkkäinen can escape such a charge in light of statements like that of Simo Peura, which Kärkkäinen quotes approvingly, namely, that “God realizes himself and his own nature” in the deifying of the believer. Third, it is remarkable how similar Kärkkäinen’s view is to that of Andreas Osiander (1498–1552), whom Calvin refuted. Osiander believed that justification is where the essential righteousness of Christ’s deity is imparted to the sinner. Calvin argued that Osiander’s view bordered on Manichaeism and that such a view abandons the forensic nature of justification as well as the necessity of the atonement for the forgiveness of sins, a point both Horton and Bird make. Additionally, our justification and union with Christ is not characterized by an infusion of God’s essence into man but an imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is a gift from God. Fourth, in the end Kärkkäimen’s view simply succumbs to the Catholic view. Justification incorporates sanctification and means both declaring righteous and also making righteous. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Kärkkäinen’s interaction with Scripture is minimal at best. For someone who is seeking to retrieve what Luther actually believed, it must be recognized that Luther stood on Scripture in his understanding of justification. Simply put, Kärkkäinen fails to build his case on Scripture as Luther did.
When it comes to presenting a case for justification on the basis of what Scripture says, O’Collins and Rafferty do not fare any better. Rafferty provides us with an insightful overview, particularly of the Middle Ages, and O’Collins then concludes the chapter with his personal journey in the Catholic faith. O’Collins does make reference to certain passages of Scripture that were instrumental in his pilgrimage. But essentially there is no exegetical treatment of the passages in debate. This is disappointing since the chapter fails to provide Protestants with a detailed look at how Catholics would defend their view of justification.
Justification: Five Views
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). When Paul wrote these words he seemed confident he had made himself clear. But for centuries the Pauline doctrine of justification has been a classic point of interpretation and debate in Christian exegesis and theology. And while in recent decades there have been moments of hopeful convergence among the various traditions of the Western church, the fine print often reveals more facets and distinctions than ever before. This volume focuses on five views of justification and calls on representative proponents to set forth their case and then respond to each other.
Furthermore, the Catholic view faces difficulties in a variety of areas. I will only mention two. First, as Horton observes, “Why does justification have to be subsumed under sanctification in order for us to affirm both?” Horton’s question is penetrating, demonstrating that the Reformed are able to maintain justification as forensic while simultaneously affirming that justification always results in the good works of sanctification. Second, behind the Catholic view of justification is a synergistic understanding of grace, whereby grace is a divine substance infused into our soul, with the consequence that we are then able to cooperate with God in order to be finally justified. But again, Rafferty and O’Collins fail to show this from Scripture and therefore never address the biblical case made by Protestants that justification involves an imputation of Christ’s righteousness, not on the basis of any merit in us, but purely because of God’s mercy and grace. In the end, the Catholic view still rests on a justification on the basis of human works. Additionally, O’Collins does not take into consideration the strong testimony from Scripture that man’s will is in bondage and slavery to sin and only an effectual grace can liberate him (i.e., monergism). Bird puts the matter acutely when he says God’s grace rules out “cooperation as a soteriological option,” for the “Bible does not give us a God who says he wants to help us help ourselves.”
Debating the Text
While Kärkkäinen, O’Collins, and Rafferty fail to address Scripture, Horton, Bird, and Dunn look at the texts in debate head on. Beginning with Dunn’s case for the New Perspective on Paul, it is readily acknowledged that Paul fought for the inclusion of Gentile believers and surrounding this debate were issues such as circumcision, the Sabbath, etc. (i.e., boundary markers). Nevertheless, it seems that Dunn overstates his case. The fundamental issue was a failure to keep the law of God, not exclusion of the Gentiles from covenant membership (Rom. 2:21–22; 3:19–20). Overall, however, Dunn’s polemic against the old perspective is mild. Bird comically writes that if the NPP was first inaugurated with Dunn’s chapter there would not have been such an explosion of debate. Nevertheless, the basic core of the NPP is there in Dunn’s presentation, and I remain convinced that it struggles to overcome the critique provided by Thomas Schreiner in last year’s ETS address.
Michael Bird’s chapter, proposing a “Progressive Reformed View,” is one of the most interesting. He is Reformed in that he is covenantal, Calvinistic, and moderately confessional. He is “progressive” because, among other reasons, he believes “Reformed theologians in general have read Scripture while wearing a theological straightjacket and have read Paul through the lends of an ordo salutis (order of salvation) to the neglect of a historia salutis (history of salvation).” Additionally, Bird says, much “Reformed interpretation of Paul simply lacks social realism and often flosses over the specific historical context of Paul’s letters in favor of using the Pauline corpus to forge interecclesial weapons for theological polemics against perceived foes.” In regards to justification, he argues that it is “the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as part of the first installment of the new age.” This occurs “through the apocalyptic revelation of God’s saving righteousness in the gospel of the crucified and risen savior.” From here Bird looks at a host of biblical texts, defending his definition with precision.
Nevertheless, Bird tends to caricature the Reformed view on a number of points. First, Bird, in his presentation of the Reformed view of imputation, uses caricatures: Jesus is “racking up frequent flyer points that could [be] transferred into our account.” Or, Jesus’ obedience becomes ours through his “righteousness molecules floating through the air to us.” No Reformed person would describe his view in this manner. Here Bird sounds much like N. T. Wright when he says the Reformation view is like a judge passing righteousness like a gas across a courtroom.
Second, Bird argues that several texts (Rom. 5:17–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:7–9; 2 Cor. 5:21) come very close to teaching imputation but then “fall gloriously short.” He argues, for example, that “righteousness” in 1 Corinthians 1:30 is likely a “righteous status,” but “there is no need to infer that righteousness is imputed any more than holiness, redemption, and wisdom are imputed.” Paul only says we receive “righteousness” by being “in Christ Jesus,” but the specific means is “left undefined.” Granted, Paul does not explicitly define the means, but is Bird right to say we cannot even “infer” that righteousness is imputed? I beg to differ. The text naturally raises the question as to how Christ becomes our “righteousness.” As Horton states, “Although 1 Corinthians 1:30 doesn’t mention imputation, how else is Christ ‘our righteousness’ in a forensic or legal sense (as Bird agrees)?” Horton is on to something when he argues that Bird overlooks the fact that “Christ is our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30) and therefore, while there may be other metaphors for justification other than “crediting,” they “all point to the same reality: clothed with Christ, cancelled debts, full inheritance and so on.” In other words, “Paul seems to connect more dots than Bird suggests here.”
Bird raises the same issue with Philippians 3:7–9, arguing that while there is “clearly a righteousness from God that is given to believers,” nevertheless “we cannot assume that this righteousness is imputed from God any more than we can think that righteousness is imputed from the law.” But why not? Paul is pretty clear that his righteousness is not his own from the law, but rather through Christ. And does Paul not say that this righteousness is “from God”? It seems like a perfectly reasonable inference to then assume that this righteousness is imputed from God in a way that we would not say it is imputed from the law.
The Reformed reading (Piper’s in particular) of Romans 5:19 is also criticized by Bird. He protests: “connected” does not necessarily mean “counted.” Additionally, Bird says, the phrase “many will be made righteous” is not synonymous with “counted righteous.” And the righteousness Paul refers to is a “transformative righteousness” (“becoming” righteous) in addition to a “forensic righteousness.” Bird believes this makes sense of the contrast between condemnation and justification in verse 8. However, Horton notes: “Romans 5:19 (like 2 Cor 5:21) does not refer to a transformative ‘becoming,’ as Bird suggests, any more than Christ’s ‘becoming’ sin for us refers to a degenerative process rather than imputation.” Furthermore,
The opposite of judicial condemnation is justification, not renewal. Although the transformative impact of union with Christ is highlighted in chapter 6, here in chapter 5 we are told how believers “will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19b)—namely, through “one act of righteousness” (Rom 5:18b). Why not then understand “will be made righteous” . . . as referring to a new state of affairs—in the future from the perspective of Adam’s transgression.
Horton has a great point here. Paul does explain that we will be made righteous by means of a “forensic verdict,” and when coupled with other Pauline texts (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21, etc.) it seems valid to conclude that an alien righteousness is credited to our account.
Despite his criticisms, Bird concludes that imputation “is a necessary implication of the biblical materials,” once we “take all the bits and bobs together.” He writes, “Something like imputation sounds like a logical necessity of describing the application of salvation for those who are ‘in Christ.’” I agree with Bird when he says that imputation is a “synthesis” from the Pauline texts. Why then is Bird so critical of looking at those texts in order to draw inferences that the texts themselves seem to warrant? Yes, the doctrine is a synthesis, but nonetheless it must be defended from the text itself, which Bird seems hesitant to do.
Ultimately, however, Bird stands within the Protestant tradition in his affirmation of justification as a forensic declaration of one’s new status, and not one’s moral state. And he affirms that we are incorporated into the righteousness of Christ so that his obedience is counted as ours. Out of all the chapters Bird’s seeks to tackle the text the most, something for which he should be applauded.
It will come as no surprise that I am in agreement with Michael Horton and the Reformed view on justification. While I do wish Horton would have addressed a wider range of passages as Bird did, nevertheless, Horton does an excellent job of pinpointing the central issues in debate. First, Horton rightly demonstrates that in the Hebrew and Greek “to justify” is a forensic, courtroom term, making justification a declarative, judicial verdict, not a process. Second, Horton exposes the problems with N. T. Wright’s view concerning the righteousness of God, namely, that it refers to God’s covenant faithfulness and is not something that can be transferred to us. Wright believes imputation makes no sense at all since the judge cannot give the defendant his own righteousness. Horton shows that the righteousness imputed is not a substance or commodity but a legal status.
Additionally, Wright has neglected a third party, namely, Christ the mediator. It is the active and passive obedience of Christ, not “the essential divine attribute of righteousness” in God that is credited to believers. From a historical standpoint it seems that not only has Wright caricatured the Reformers’ view but he has also swapped it out and replaced it with Osiander’s! Furthermore, how strange it is that Wright is willing to affirm the imputation of guilt from the sinner to Christ our substitute, but not the imputation of righteousness from Christ to the sinner. Doesn’t this run against the grain of Romans 5:12–17? Finally, Paul’s contrast, especially in Romans 4:5, is not between circumcision and our Spirit-led obedience but between “working and trusting.” Horton points out, “Wright’s claim is tantamount to saying that we are justified by some works (our covenant faithfulness), but not by others (ethnic purity).”
Third, Horton gives a needed defense of imputation, reminding us that this doctrine is indispensible since it is the way “God gives this righteousness or justice to the ungodly through faith.” Horton shows that while the exact term may not be used, the concept of imputation infiltrates Paul’s letters at every turn. I leave it to the reader to take an in-depth look into the passages Horton examines, but Horton is correct when he writes, “These passages unmistakably teach that the righteousness by which the believer stands worthy before God’s judgment is alien: that is, belonging properly to someone else. It is Christ’s righteousness imputed, not the believer’s inherent righteousness—even if produced by the gracious work of the Spirit.” If Horton is right, and I think he is, then the other views need some serious adjustment.
This review has only touched the surface of the debate, which is not likely to stop anytime soon. The ongoing centrality of the debate also demonstrates Luther’s maxim, namely, that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. This being the case, it is essential that we think hard about the biblical text lest we fail to understand properly how we are made right before a holy God.