One of the more disturbing aspects of the Federal Vision program is its doctrine of final justification. Let’s be clear here: Protestants have no such thing. We do not not equivocate (use the same word in two senses at the same time) when we use the word “to justify.” It is too important.
When we say, “justify” we mean, “a divine declaration of righteousness.” The basis or ground of this declaration is the actual, perfect, condign merit and perfect righteousness (active and passive obedience) of Jesus which is imputed to all those who believe, i.e., who are “receiving and resting” in Christ and his finished work for us. God is right to declare us righteous, because the terms of justice have been fulfilled by Christ. By the way, our doctrine of justification does not, therefore, make justification a “legal fiction” as the papists and moralists (i.e., the FV) like to say. We have a real, actual basis for our righteousness before God. It is not “grace and cooperation with grace” or Spirit-wrought sanctity within us. Christ’s righteousness for us was and is real, actual, intrinsic, and perfect and it is imputed to all who believe sot that all believers are reckoned as perfectly righteous before God.
It’s only a legal fiction if God does not have the right to impute Christ’s righteousness to us, and clearly both the FV and the Papists believe in imputation—though they might not realize it. The papists and moralists both teach a form of imputation in their doctrine of congruent merit. In medieval theology, merit was said to be congruent when a work was not wrought within one by the Spirit and therefore lacked perfection. In congruent merit, God is said to have covenanted to impute perfection to those who do their best, “to those who do what is in them, God will not deny grace” (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). The FV movement ends up teaching a version of this when they try to include our good works in the ground or instrument of justification. They realize that our works aren’t perfect, therefore they argue that God imputes perfection to them.
So, both critics of the Protestant doctrine of justification concede the fundamental point at issue: imputation. Thus, it’s not a question whether imputation but what will be imputed and to whom. Protestants say that Christ’s real, actual, perfect righteousness is imputed. Rome and the FV say that our best efforts are imputed.
This also means that R. C. Sproul was right (no pun intended—the FV fellows have been hotly critical of R. C. for misleading the assembly by his speech) when he said on the floor of the PCA GA that imputation was at stake. It certainly is. In a short floor speech it’s not really possible to spell all this out, but he was quite right to call the attention of the commissioners to this question. Thus, if both sets of critics concede some form of imputation, what’s the fuss? Well, the fuss is that, in the case of the FV, like the papists, they want to separate “initial” and “final” justification. This revision has taken a couple of forms. In one form, an elder in a NAPARC denomination proposed that we are justified in this life sola gratia, sola fide but at the judgment we are justified partly on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity (or condign merit). This form of the revision is problematic enough. Though this elder was ultimately excused on the floor of GA after he repented, his denomination, both in presbytery (where he was convicted) and at GA in the floor speeches, and later in the report on justification clearly condemned this view. This same view surfaced in the United Reformed Churches the sermon, “The Lion Won’t Bite the Innocent.” A complaint against this sermon was laid before his consistory, and the refusal of consistory and classis to act against it was appealed to Synod Calgary where the doctrine of the sermon was repudiated. In response, the URCs adopted a brief statement affirming the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.
The second form, however, is even more dangerous as it denies justification sola gratia, sola fide in this life and in the next! In the more virulent form, they say that we’re conditionally elect, united to Christ, justified, adopted, etc at baptism. Thus we have initial justification, but our final justification is contingent upon grace and cooperation with grace. If we cooperate sufficiently with grace it will turn out that we were unconditionally elect but if not, then I guess we weren’t elect. It goes from bad to worse. In this version we are also said to be justified at the last day on the basis of intrinsic sanctity. Some of them have no time for imputation of any kind!
Well, the Protestants had an antidote for all this. They distinguished justification (as defined earlier) from vindication. This is the way the Reformed confessions consistently speak of the matter. At the last day, we shall be vindicated. This is the very distinction that James makes viz Paul. If we say we have faith, then we shall have evidence, i.e., works. Our works vindicate our claim to having faith, but they don’t justify us before God. Luther, Calvin and the rest of the Protestants distinguished justification before men (coram hominibus) from justification before God (coram Deo).
Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 90 asks, “What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?” Part of the answer says that, at the judgment, the “righteous…shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men….”
The phrase, “openly acknowledged and acquitted” refers to the Protestant doctrine of vindication before God and man at the last day. It is only the justified who shall be acknowledged and acquitted and they are just who are clothed with the perfect (condign) righteousness and merit of Christ. We dare not stand before God on the basis of anything wrought in us or anything done by us because it is all imperfect, it is all tainted, it is all corrupted and none of it meets the unbreakable standard of God’s righteousness: “cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law” (Gal 3:10). This is why the Protestants universally rejected the notion of congruent merit, because it denies the divine righteousness. God does not overlook sin and he doesn’t act arbitrarily. He acts according to his nature and his nature is just.
That is why Paul says, “having been justified” and “there is therefore now no condemnation….” Justification is done. Christ’s righteousness is done. The latter is the basis for the former, and it is just and right for God to reckon it so and to reckon us righteous who trust in him who fulfilled all righteousness. Remember, the question isn’t even whether we are to believe in imputation since both papists and moralists believe in imputation. The question is whether we’re to confess the Protestant, confessional, and biblical version of imputation or some other.
Because we are righteous in Christ, we shall be vindicated at the judgment. There is no such thing as “initial” justification as distinct from “final” justification. We are justified now and we shall be vindicated then.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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[Ed. note: This post first appeared on the HB in 2007]