It is an historical fact that moralism (the confusion of justification with sanctification) never dies, it just goes dormant periodically. The Reformation defeated 1000 years of moralism only to see forms of it re-emerge in the Protestant churches even before Luther died. It resurfaced in the Remonstrant theology, in Richard Baxter (and in those orthodox Reformed whom he influenced), in the Scottish neonomians in the 18th century, in the Oxford (Tractarian) movement in the 19th century, in Charles Finney, and has more or less dominated American Protestantism (whether “evangelical” or liberal) for most of American history.
Over the last few years in the NAPARC world and in satellite groups, the orthodox have won several strategic victories in the courts and assemblies of the Reformed churches. The following denominations or federations have rejected the Federal Vision/NPP and related forms of moralism (justification by grace and cooperation with grace) in no particular order (from memory):
The United Reformed Churches
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church
The Presbyterian Church in America
The Bible Presbyterian Church
The Reformed Church in the United States
The Orthodox Christian Reformed Church
The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America
The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States
It isn’t over, however. The moralists are mounting a comeback. There is a movement to say that the proper response to the Roman criticism that the Reformation doctrine of justification is not the alien (extrinsic) righteousness of Christ imputed but some form of “union with Christ” whether Osiander’s “Christ in us” model or “We in Christ.” In either case, the move is to say, “Look, we have real, intrinsic righteousness. It’s not infused but it’s actual. You can’t say we don’t believe in Spirit-wrought, intrinsic righteousness.”
Any answer to the critics of the Reformation that attempts to satisfy them on their own grounds is doomed to failure because it has conceded the major premise of the critique. However diligently this lot may formally affirm justification sola fide seek and to preserve some version of justification sola fide alongside a system of acceptance with God partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity/righteousness, it is only an act of the will. It is theologically incoherent. it is unstable. It has two competing principles at work with its soteriology. Soteriology cannot serve two masters: acceptance on the basis of intrinsic sanctity/righteousness (however construed and for whatever reason) and acceptance with God on the basis of extrinsic righteousness imputed. It must love the one and hate the other.
Yes, we believe in Spirit-wrought sanctity, or Spirit-wrought righteousness. Anyone who denies that doesn’t know Reformed theology, but we don’t believe, confess, or teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity or righteousness has anything to do with our standing with God. There are two benefits of Christ: justification and sanctification. The latter follows from the former. It is the fruit and evidence of justification. It contributes nothing to our acceptance with God.
The answer to the critics of the Reformation doctrine of justification and the answer to the moralists, whoever they may be, is not to concede the basic doctrine of the Reformation. You cannot preserve a house from fire by setting the basement on fire. You preserve the house from fire by fighting the fire. To turn to some form of acceptance with God based on Spirit-wrought righteousness is not the clever judo move by that some think it is, unless it is good judo to roll over and get pinned.
There is no satisfying the the moralists. They will only be satisfied with total victory. That’s why they’ll never give up. They do not love the gospel of an unequivocal, free, justification because they do not believe that they are wretched sinners utterly hopeless before the face of the all righteous God who is a consuming fire.
The moralists will be back. They will be back because they never really go away. They go dormant for a while. For this reason, let us never say, “We all know what the gospel is, now let us go on to the Christian life.” The minute we say that we’ve lost the foundation of the house and the power of the Christian life. It’s like saying, “We all know how to breathe, so let’s forget about breathing and get to exercising.” People who say that have never exercised! If you want to live a Christian life, start with the declaration of the good news. How do we confront sin in our lives? We reckon with the law. How is sin defeated? By the gospel and only by the gospel. The law has no power to defeat sin. The law only has power to convict and guide. The law is like railroad tracks. To go off the tracks is destruction but the tracks do not move the train. Only God the Spirit empowers the Christian to live Christianly and he does so only through the frequent and faithful declaration of the good news to sinners.
Christian, when you stand here the moralists will call you antinomian. Don’t be intimidated. They’ve redefined “antinomian” to mean, “Any one who denies any form of acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity or righteousness.” Fine. If that’s the definition of “antinomian,” then fine, I’m antinomian. Of course, it’s a bizarre definition. Real antinomianism is denial of the third use of the law. No Reformed Christian (indeed, no confessional Protestant) can deny the third use of the law and still be faithful to the confessions.
How then to reply to the moralists? The only reply is twofold: First, preach the law. The first thing that every moralist needs to hear is the law. People become moralists because they do not really believe that they are sinners. They need to become sinners. They need to recognize themselves for what they really are. They lack self-knowledge. They lack a true knowledge of the righteousness and holiness and wrath of God. They don’t really fear God, however much they may talk about piety.
When they have heard the thunder of the law in all it’s unmitigated, holy, and just demand for perfect, perpetual, and personal righteousness, only then should we announce to them the sweet gospel message. We can no more satisfy the moralists on their own grounds than Paul could satisfy the pagans at the Areopagus. He preached the (natural) law and the foolish (supernatural) gospel of the resurrection. Some believed, most did not. That’s all we can hope. The moralists will be back. Bank on it. This isn’t over because it can never be over; not until history is over.
[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]