5 difficulties in studying the doctrine of justification

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century was in large part fueled by a disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church over the doctrine of justification. Yet despite the seismic shifts caused by the debate, there was little or no consensus back then. Now, even though nearly 400 years have passed, justification continues to be a key point of division between Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity despite many concerted efforts at resolution. It is even more disconcerting when we realize that the friction is not limited to Catholic versus Protestant, but that there has been significant disagreement over the doctrine of justification even within Protestantism itself during that time. In the last forty years, the controversy has really come to a boil and the catalyst for recent controversy over justification is in large part due to the teachings of those now loosely classified under the title or theological persuasion known as The New Perspectives on Paul or NPP. During time characterized by the emergence of NPP, there have been no less than 25 books published on the doctrine of justification. The vast majority of these books have been published within the past 15 years. This, along with the cacophony of internet chatter emphasizes that the doctrine of justification holds continued relevance and importance in the Christian world today. [1.  If one includes the books devoted to the subject of NPP in the last several years, the number of books related to the subject of justification can be easily doubled.  And if one counts web publications, the total number moves well beyond one hundred indicating that the doctrine of justification and its tangential components are still considered a relevant and important topic of discussion. In my opinion, this also indicates that it is not as settled an issue as most would like to think. Consider by way of contrast: very little is written today on the Deity or Humanity of Christ because that is a doctrine that is largely settled. Neither is there the kind of heated debate we find surrounding this doctrine.]

The persistent controversy and instability of this doctrine provides extreme cause for concern when we fully understand the key role played by justification within the Christian faith. Most who study the book of Galatians rightly conclude that Paul’s main theological focus in the letter is justification (Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:6, 8, 11, 21; 5:4) and Paul’s stern warning to those preaching a false gospel centers on the doctrine of justification (cf. 1:8-9). Clearly, as far as Paul is concerned, the doctrine of justification is a main focus of the Gospel. Our understanding of justification can determine whether or not we have a false gospel bringing condemnation . . . or the true Gospel bringing salvation. Paul is not the only one who recognized the importance of justification. It is here that Martin Luther’s words regarding this doctrine become specifically apropos:

[Justification] is chief article of the whole Christian doctrine… the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae [article of the standing and falling of the church]… if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls.

Despite the cataclysmic nature of the controversies surrounding the doctrine of justification and the fact that the importance of this doctrine cannot be understated, a biblically consistent consensus has still yet to emerge – save in a relatively few instances. The reasons for the difficulty of studying this particular doctrine become starkly apparent the further a person progresses through the biblical, historical and contemporary literature related to the subject. Here are five reasons why a clear, biblically consistent doctrine of justification still proves to be elusive:   

1.     Supposed contradictions in the biblical prescription

By faith, we accept that every word of Scripture was inspired by God and that within those words, there is no contradiction. Yet, surface readings of various texts can result in an apparent contradiction. If not resolved, these contradictions can result in inconsistent or faulty conclusions that make the formulation of consistent systematic theology difficult. Consider the following example offered without context or explanation:

Compare: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:6) with For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God (1 Corinthians 7:19).

Philippians 3:6; Acts 23:1, 24:16; 1Co 4:4

2 Corinthians 1:12 with Rom 3:9-12; 7:18

1 Timothy 1:15

Romans 3:28 with James 2:21

Romans 10:4 with Romans 8:4; 13:8-10; Acts 15:5, 10-11

Galatians 2:21 with Acts 21:20-26

2.     The lack of historical consensus in relation to soteriological meaning, permanency and frequency

The Protestant Reformation is exhibit A for this lack of consensus. Is the sinner declared righteous or made righteous? Is justification infused over time or imputed all at once? Once a profession is made, can a person lose salvation or is he eternally secure?

Divergent answers to questions such as these shows that there existed a wide range of convictions as to the meaning, permanency and frequency of justification and salvation during the Protestant Reformation. It is also important to note that this diversity not only existed between the Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century, but also among the Protestant Reformers themselves. This lack of historical consensus is portrayed in Alan J. Spence’s book: Justification: a Guide for the Perplexed where he writes:

 Augustine did not distinguish the justification of the sinner from the transformation that is an essential feature of the life of the one who is justified. Martin Luther held that other than the putting aside of our sins there is in justification a positive transference to the believer of the righteousness of Christ. It was Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin who were most clear that justification was simply divine pardon” (p.152)

Peter Lillback echoes this thought:

Luther was convinced that the Swiss were teaching the same as the pope concerning justification. [2. Peter Lillback, The Binding of God, p.113. Luther of course was wrong in his assessment of the Swiss Reformers and their understanding of justification. They were not the same as the pope. They were however not teaching what Luther taught; further emphasizing the lack of consensus and tension that has existed in relation to this subject.]

The lack of consensus, the diversity of formulations and the presence of tension regarding the doctrine of justification continued in the theology of the men who immediately followed the Reformation. Present day teaching and writing on the subject has provided no exception to the rule. [3. I am aware of at least 6 in existence today which I have given the very general designations:  Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan-Arminian, New Perspective, Roman-Orthodox and Covenantal.  It is not my intention to unpack each of these in any detail as the scope of this study does not allow for it. My purpose is instead to emphasize the challenge one faces when trying to understanding the doctrine of Justification.  Much like the doctrine of Eschatology, it hosts a multitude of differing views and systems of thought in relation to its tenets and biblical interpretation.  As was mentioned, this diversity has created as much tension today as it did in former times.  Similar to what happened during the Reformation between the Germans and the Swiss – the theological landscape is now filled with plenty of vitriol and “heresy hunting”. In my opinion, it is not without warrant.]

3.     The heavy emphasis on church history while neglecting biblical history

It only makes sense that to understand biblical teaching on the subject of justification, it is more important to understand the theology and practice of the four hundred years prior to Christ than to analyze the theology and practice of the four hundred years following the Reformation. The four hundred years before Christ provided the religious soil of the New Testament writers and their first century readers, not the Protestant Reformation. Ironically however, the bulk of research being done today – at least at the popular levels of consumption – seems to disagree with that logic. The focus in popular evangelical theology tends to be more on understanding and embracing the view of the Protestant Reformers on Justification rather than on understanding the historical context of the New Testament itself! [4. This is the period of time commonly known today as Second Temple Judaism: the time between the reconstruction of the Temple by Zerubbabel (516 B.C.) and its destruction by the Romans (70 A.D.). What the Jews believed and practiced during this time is clearly what Jesus, Paul and the other New Testament teachers are responding to in discussions on justification or any other subject for that matter. Which means that if we are to correctly understand this doctrine, this the pre-requisite and not Roman Catholicism – which in the opinion of at least some – is the context that Luther read into all of the biblical discussions/teaching on this issue.  Unfortunately, similar forms of eisegesis are still happening today. This will be further unpacked in the section titled “History”. For now, in the words of EP Sanders: We (continue today) to have a retrojection of the Protestant-Catholic debate into ancient history, with Judaism taking the role of Catholicism and Christianity the role of Lutheranism.]

Such a heavy emphasis on church history (most specifically the Protestant Reformation) while neglecting the historical background of the New Testament has created yet another hurdle in the study of this important doctrine and resulted in at least two consequences:

First, Christianity, especially American Christianity has become characterized by large numbers of severely immature people operating with man-crushes exactly like those encountered by Paul in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). The “rock-star” status given to popular preachers, Bible teachers and Christian authors is incredible. Heavily quoted and hardly ever questioned, these people have essentially become the standard of truth within Christianity. Their political and popular influence is so great that a person who does not to align with them or use them as a source of support immediately becomes doctrinally suspect regardless of the biblical validity of the position advocated. These man-crushes have also contributed to the rapid increase in the attendance of theological/Bible conferences every year. Since 2001, the numbers of both conferences and conference attendees have more than doubled. There is some type of theological conference attended by thousands somewhere in the U.S. nearly every month. [5. January: Code Orange Revival, Aggressive Sanctification February: Wheaton Theology March: Shepherd’s Conference April: Together for the Gospel May: Refueled, Gospel Coalition June: Resolved, Ligonier West Coast September: Truth Matters October: Resurgence November: Desiring God Each of these conferences consistently register over a thousand in attendance, and regularly sell out.  Additionally, many who attend are likely to attend other conferences in the same year with at least some of the same speakers – a clear sign of the demand for conferences and that a new subculture within Christianity has emerged: the Christian conference groupie.  Though Jesus and even Paul attracted large crowds who followed them, it is hard to imagine they would have allowed for what we see today. Hence the motivation for what Paul writes in 1Corinthians 3:1-4.] One might be tempted to attribute this phenomenon as an increase in biblical interest, but our own experience indicates exactly the opposite. The ecstatic frenzy is less in respect to the Bible or sound doctrine, but for the opportunity to simply be in the presence of those teaching it. [6. As an example of this, The Shepherd’s Conference, hosted by Grace Community Church pastured by John MacArthur does not allow people into the sanctuary until moments before the actual services. This is due to their awareness of people’s propensity to “camp out” in those pews closest to the front. However, this has the effect of creating mass hysteria once the doors are opened – people running to the front (even fighting) for the choice seats. I (Pastor Scott) should know, I was once one of them! It is worth noting also, that it is not uncommon for individuals to shout accolades at their favorite speakers. For instance, last year at the Truth Matters conference, a man shouted out, “John I love you!” Autographs also are a big part of these events as well as collecting free books, written by the conference speakers – some specifically for the conference itself. The only thing missing are t-shirts with the faces of these evangelical rock-stars on the front or posters in the bedroom. Teeny boppers move over, Christian man-crush mania is here with no end in sight.]

Secondly, there has come to exist a large number of biblically ignorant individuals whose dogmatic position on the doctrine of justification rests on a foundation of sloppy systematics, cherry-picked spoof-texts and a barrage of quotations from un-inspired men. Just look at how little of popular printed/electronic pages are given to working through large portions of the biblical text – especially those texts germane to the doctrine in question. The majority of what passes for “substantial” in modern theological discourse makes little or no attempt to reconcile conclusions with the Analogy of Faith or even the overall context of purported biblical support. Instead doctrinal debate has degenerated into dueling citations from favorite historical or contemporary teachers where once again only the writings or words most supportive of their position are used. Even the most diligent and rigorous great men of theology have contradicted themselves at some point. But instead of being studied and resolved, these contradictions are ignored. (i.e. It is possible to equally support both sides of many arguments using Luther, Calvin and especially Spurgeon.) Isolated citations from these great men are then paired with a daisy chain of verses in complete isolation from their original context as though they were the sine qua non of the biblical author’s point or theology. May we offer a theory as to why this debate/discussion/study technique is used so frequently?  Because any responsible treatment of the biblical text is impossible – since a responsible treatment of the text requires a sufficient familiarity with it. [7. This is reflected even in books considered to be scholarly in nature. As a fitting example, John Piper’s The Future Of Justification, draws substantial conclusions about the doctrine of justification from the books of Romans and Galatians yet makes no attempt at exegesis or explanation as it relates to the larger context of Paul’s teaching in those books or its consistency with the rest of Scripture. While I am not in agreement with N.T Wright’s overall conclusions on the subject (Piper’s primary opponent in his book), at least Wright’s analysis of the doctrine attempts to exegete and explain the whole of those books from which he takes his position – endeavoring also to show the consistency of his own position with the rest of Scripture (see Tom Wright, Justification). Piper also makes an appeal to the 16th century as the place to look when understanding the New Testament and its terms versus the first century where they originated (p.36). This is disturbing, yet makes several of the points already mentioned in this essay. It seems that for many people, church history, proper doctrine or biblical understanding did not exist before the Reformation.]

4.     The strong biases which severely hinder objective analysis and conclusions in relation to the biblical text.  

The what and where of these biases will be demonstrated through the discussions and material in the rest of the Justification Rediscovered course and future articles.  Please allow one example to make the point for now:

Between 2001-2004, there were two books written that sequestered the expertise, research and opinions of over a dozen evangelical scholars on the subject of justification. The books bear the names Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1 and Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 2. As the titles suggest, the specific focus of these rather large volumes (each over 500 pages) is an assessment of the soteriological framework labeled by E.P. Sanders in the 1970’s as “covenantal nomism” and attempted to answer whether or not covenantal nomism is a valid understanding of Paul’s teaching on justification.

Volume 1 in particular is dedicated to determining whether or not covenantal nomism or one of its related varieties is an accurate representation of what we find in the extant Jewish writings of Second Temple Judaism. Over twenty different pieces of Jewish literature from this time were examined and the overwhelming conclusion of the authors in Volume 1 is that some form of covenantal nomism was indeed what each of these sources implied or explicitly presented as the soteriological framework for God’s redemptive work among people. D.A. Carson, one of the volume’s editors, makes it abundantly clear that covenantal nomism is the correct understanding of Judiasm. Consider these quotations from the final summary and conclusion written by Carson:

…the penitential prayers, Faulk finds, often deploy language and motifs that nicely reflect the pattern of covenantal nomism described by Sanders. (p.506)

There is nothing of classic ‘merit theology’ in these Psalms, and in many respects Sanders’ covenantal nomism would doubtless be a congenial category to the psalmists. (p. 507)

…by and large the pattern exhibited in 1Esdras is in line with Tanakh and with Sanders’ covenantal nomism…Once again, the emphases are at least in line with covenantal nomism. (p. 509-10)

Jubilees greatly emphasizes God’s elective grace in choosing the nation, and equally emphasizes Israel’s responsibility to keep the commandments.  So far then, the pattern of covenantal nomism is explicit in this book. (p.510)

 One can scarcely fail to note the frequency with which several scholars in these pages comment that their corpora largely fit the category of covenantal nomism… (p.547)

Carson clearly acknowledges that some form of covenantal nomism is the soteriological structure found in all of these writings, yet the thrust of both volumes is away from covenantal nomism. To be fair, Carson’s problems are mainly with Sander’s particular view of covenantal nomism, but the throwing out of the entire covenantal nomism structure is unwarranted. So, why do scholars reject covenantal nomism in general? Because embracing such a framework is a sure death-knell to their theology and understanding of justification? [8. In light of this, consider Kent Yinger’s analysis: Since 1977 general agreement has been reached on the following points: covenantal nomism is a fair description of Jewish soteriology of the period…Thus students will be hard pressed to find more recent scholars seeking to return to pre-Sanders view (caricature?) of legalistic Judaism.  – Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul, p.12, 42]

To state that there is a conspiracy within the Evangelical scholarly community may be going too far.  However, one wonders why truths such as the structure of covenantal nomism never seem to make it into popular Christian literature, why are the old perspectives are left in place?  We must ask which threat they consider to be greater: the undermining of stated doctrinal conclusions or the black mark that might appear on their reputations as Bible scholars.

5.     Appropriation or hijacking of biblical/theological terms.

A good example of this is the term “double imputation”.  It traditionally has referred to the imputation of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us, but in modern times, it is possible to use this formula to denote the “double” imputation of both Christ’s active and passive obedience. Another example is the phrase: righteousness of Christ. Multiple meanings now exist oftentimes making it tricky to determine the particular position for which an author is attempting to support.

Conclusion: As we delve into this topic further, we welcome comments and discussion on this topic. Feel free to contact us via phone or email. Our goal is not to win an argument, but to more fully reveal and understand the mind of God on these matters. Questions or criticisms that are grounded in the sound exegesis and logic of Scripture can only help us to increase in the knowledge of God’s revealed plan for the redemption of men.