How Rome Turns Paul and David Upside Down

Jason has been listening to Mike Horton’s interview with Robert Sungenis and considering Sungenis’ case for the Roman doctrine of justification. Sungenis argues that 2 Sam 11–12 and Rom 4:5–8 prove that “if there is any passage of Scripture that supports the Catholic understanding of Justification, this is it.”

The Catholic understanding of justification is that

David lost his justification by committing adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11-12) and that these sins are the very reason that Paul can then use David as an example of a person who, after he committed these heinous mortal sins, can now receive justification when he repents of those sins.

I reply that Sungenis’ appeal to the example of David and Paul’s use of it has a hidden premise, an a priori: God can only say “justified” of those who are intrinsically, inherently just or completely sanctified. Obviously, after sinning, David was no longer intrinsically just or completely sanctified, ergo he must have lost his justification.

If the premise is false, the conclusion no longer follows.

The conclusion is manifestly false. David was never utterly sanctified or intrinsically, inherently, just (iustitia propria) at any point in his life, and therefore, on Sungenis’ scheme, he was never justified. He had no justification to lose.

Or, we can say with God’s Word that the basis for our justification is extrinsic, that it is Jesus’ inherent, intrinsic righteousness and that perfect, sinless righteousness is imputed to sinners. It was on this basis that David the sinner said:

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom Yahweh does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no guile. (Ps 32:1-2).

For David, the ground of his acceptance with God was not his intrinsic sanctity or righteousness but the imputation of some one else’s righteousness. David understood that there had to be perfect righteousness. He understood the implicit message of the entire sacrificial system. Unlike Rome (and Sungenis) he did not teach a doctrine of congruent merit, that God accepts our best efforts and imputes perfection to them. David understood the need for a perfect righteousness. He understood what Paul taught in Rom 4:

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 

The entire point of Paul’s argument is that the ground of David’s righteousness and the ground of Abraham’s righteousness (and that of all sinners) is not their intrinsic righteousness or sanctity. It is not the godly who God justifies, it is the ungodly. Please note to what passage Paul turns to make his case. He quotes Ps 32:1,

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not impute his sin.

According to Paul and David, the ground of righteousness is not our intrinsic sanctity (that which is within us). God does not receive us because we are good or sanctified.  Paul continues. 

…We say that faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it imputed to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.

That is why Paul says that it is not the who who “works” but the one who “trusts” whom God justifies. The instrument of our justification is not circumcision or faith made a reality by sanctification but only “trust” or “confidence” (the very thing that Trent has condemned) in Christ and in his finished work.

Sungenis has turned David and Paul upside down because he, like Rome, begins with bad assumptions. God has approved of one intrinsically, righteous man: the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. That righteousness is sufficient for all who we receive the benefit of it by unearned favor alone, through trusting alone in Christ alone.

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Clark. 4:5 is just stunning, isn’t it? Even without comment, it looks like an anti-Roman polemic.

    To the one who does not work … his faith is credited as righteousness.

    God justifies the ungodly.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Maybe you can help out in answering a question I have. Much is made in Reformed arguments against Rome that one of the reasons that Rome is wrong because Rome does not teach justification as a one time declarative act by God that once declared cannot be lost, as the discussion demonstrates. If a church does not teach justification as a once for all declarative act of God that cannot be lost is that church properly speaking a true church (I am thinking of the traditional reformed understanding of a true church, where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administrated)?

  3. Hi Tom,

    Well, I think the Belgic Confession (Art 29) is pretty clear that Rome is a false church. Rome condemned the biblical gospel in session six of the Council of Trent, 1547. That was the breaking point, the point at which Rome became a false church and a sect and no longer genuinely “catholic.”

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I apologize for being unclear. I am not really thinking of Rome specifically but other communions. If a Protestant communion, for example, teaches that justification is not a one time declarative act by God which can never be lost, is that communion a true church? Thank you.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Yes. The Lutherans. Augsburg Confession XII condemns those who hold that justification cannot be lost and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, in their position papers, state that one who has been justified can lose that justification. If the Lutherans believe that one can lose their justification, regardless of the reasons given as to how one might lose their justification, how does that differ substantively from Rome?

  6. Tom,

    I’m glad I asked that question. I had a feeling I was being set up! Just so you know, I don’t care for that modus operandi.

    Well, we certainly disagree with the Lutherans over reprobation and over their denial of the perseverance of the saints. Those are both serious errors. That said, the Lutherans do preach the gospel of justification sola gratia et sola fide. They do teach that Christ’s righteousness imputed is the ground of justification and that faith trusting in Christ is the sole instrument of justification. For these reasons I’m not aware that the Reformed have ever said that the confessional Lutherans were a false church. Rome errs as to the ground and instrument of justification. She errs as to the definition of justification. The Lutherans do not confess the same errors.

    Remember, the first document in the Harmony of Reformed Confessions, published in response to the Book of Concord, was the Augsburg Confession!

    I’m not minimizing the serious differences we have with the Lutherans. The Synod of Dort, in their church order, restricted communion to those who “profess the Reformed Religion” which presumably excluded the Lutherans, since by that time they would likely have said “evangelical” if they wanted to be more inclusive — but that’s speculation.

    The fact that both Lutherans and Rome teach that justification can be lost and thus formally share an error isn’t sufficient to draw the conclusion you want to draw.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your answer. I do find it interesting that one of the attacks against Rome is that the Church does not teach justification as a moment in time declarative act of God that cannot be lost and yet, the Lutherans believe the same thing on that score and that does not seem to be a grave and pernicious problem.

    I do ask your forgiveness for offending you. It was not my intention to come across that way but to be honest I was wrong. I should have just straight out asked.

  8. Tom,

    For further information on the Lutheran view of these matters you may find this speaker’s point of view enlightening, as an outside party: (for some reason, when I looked this up this morning I noticed that each of the PDF files that came up had a warning about “this site may be harmful to your computer” or something like that, so proceed with caution. Looks like their web site might have been hacked.

    Another helpful resource would be Law & Gospel: Foundation of Lutheran Ministry, Koester, NPH, 1994. This is a Wisconsin Synod resource and it includes an additional section on their opinion of the Church Growth Movement and Evangelicalism’s effect on justification.

    As a Lutheran, I have come to appreciate the Reformed view of perseverance of the saints a lot more after reading the commentary that Dr. Riddlebarger provided in conjunction with his on-going review of each of the Canons of Dort. Nevertheless, the confessional Lutherans and confessional Reformed are not likely to yield much in either direction any time soon. Synods in both camps on the more liberal end of the spectrum, of course, are all over the place on the matter and pretty much anything goes.

    Dr. Clark mentioned in a previous blog that he enjoys listening to Lutheran preaching (WELS) from time to time because of their “preaching of law and gospel and their great clarity clarity on justification.” An OPC church is located just down the street from us and we enjoy visiting with them once it a while for the very same reasons. These two denominations have so much in common that the few differences that divide them are lamentable.

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