It’s hard to remember where I last saw an actual shell game. It might have been at the Nebraska State Fair or it might have been at some amusement park. It doesn’t matter. The fellow behind the table shows you three empty cups and one bean. He tips the cups end up and covers the bean with one of them and challenges one of the onlookers to keep track of the bean as he moves the cups around. It seems easy enough. Three cups, two hands, one bean. How difficult can it be? The fellow behind the table wins every time. It’s sleight of hand, the essence of which is to call attention to another cup, to distract attention away from the cup with the bean. So it can be in theology and history. Some times it is easy to follow the wrong cup, to lose, the bean, as it were.
One of the figurative shell games that writers sometimes play is to suggest problems that do not actually exist. The name for this move is red herring. In mysteries a red herring is a ostensible clue or an event that does not lead toward the solution of the mystery. It is designed to mislead direct focus away from the solution so that the author can spring the resolution on us at the end as a surprise. During the controversy over the self-described Federal Vision movement the proponents of this corruption of the gospel regularly argued that it does not really matter what one believes about the doctrine of justification because, after all, what really matters is that one believes in Jesus (and, in the FV scheme, cooperates sufficiently with grace to retain what was said to have been given in baptism: temporary election, temporary union with Christ, temporary justification, temporary adoption etc.). It is not the doctrine of justification, they say, that justifies but rather it is Jesus who justifies. Of course this is true and it is a good example of a shell game or a red herring because no confessional Protestant has ever argued and no confessional Protestant has ever confessed that sinners are justified by a doctrine. Their claim proves too much. On the basis of their logic we may ask why the Federal Visionists proposed a new doctrine of justification? On their logic there should never have been a Reformation in the first place and perhaps that is the goal of this sort of rhetoric, to call into question the validity of the Reformation?
Of course, what is at issue is how we should understand Scripture and what we should teach and confess about the doctrine of justification. The Reformed have always taught and confessed that the ground of our free acceptance with God is the righteousness of Christ, which is outside of us (extra nos), which he accomplished for us (pro nobis), and which is imputed to us. We teach and confess that his righteousness is received through faith alone (sola fide) defined as “resting” and “trusting” and “leaning” on Christ and his righteousness alone for justification. That is the truth. Is it the case that not every justified person fully understands this truth fully? Probably. The confessional Protestants never said that those Patristic (c. 100–500 AD) and medieval (c. 500–1500 AD) Christians were not justified because they did not formulate the doctrine of justification in the same detail as the confessional Protestants. We have always understood that the articulation of doctrine develops. We were more precise on the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity in the 4th century (et seq.) than we were in earlier centuries because we faced threats to the biblical and Christian doctrines that needed to be repudiated. Those challenges forced us to clarify our doctrine. By the time of the Definition of Chalcedon (451) and the Athanasian Creed (7th century) the Western church, at least, had agreed on a quite detailed set of propositions to which all Christian were required to assent. There are objective boundaries within which one’s confession must fall in order to be a Christian. There are objective boundaries within which one’s doctrine must fall in order to be Reformed and Presbyterian.
So it is with the doctrine of justification. In response to a series of largely medieval errors, in controversy with the Roman communion, and through internal dialogue, the Protestant Reformation achieved an advanced degree of precision in the doctrine of justification. By the middle of the 17th century, about 126 years after Luther had developed the basics of the Reformation doctrine of justification, the orthodox Reformed theologians were teaching a quite precise doctrine of justification and nowhere is that precision more evident than in the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647).1
Q. 70. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
The divines were precise in their definition of justification because this was the material question of the Reformation: how are we right with God? Rome confessed at Trent (session 6, 1547) that justification is progressive sanctification, a process that begins at baptism and is not ordinarily consummated in this life. Further, Rome declared that ordinarily it is sheer presumption to say, in this life, “I am justified.” For Rome, justification is by grace and cooperation with grace and she declared (and declares) that anyone who contradicts that teaching is eternally condemned (anathema). So, for Rome, justification is wrought in us by grace. For Rome, the ground of justification is our inherent righteousness. The instrument is baptism.
As you can see for yourself, Presbyterians confess something quite different. Each word of our definition was chosen carefully. We define justification not as a process begun at baptism but as a single act, a declaration by God about sinners. Where Rome says that justification is really only God’s recognition of what is true of us intrinsically, we say that God’s gospel word makes our justification true. The ground is not inside us (our sanctification) but outside of us. Christ and his righteousness is the ground and his righteousness is imputed to us or accounted ours. God justifies sinners for the sake of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.
Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
Rome accused us, by teaching this doctrine of imputation, of making justification a “legal fiction.” In response we confess that no, it is Rome who teaches a doctrine of legal fiction because it is they who teach that God accepts our imperfect efforts toward justification. We confess Christ’s righteousness is real, that he made a “proper” and “real” and “full” satisfaction to God’s justice for us. This is in contrast to the Roman doctrine that we make partial “satisfaction” to God’s justice by acts of penance and by the memorial, propitiatory sacrifice of the mass. Where Rome (and the Federal Vision) teaches that Christ died to make final justification possible for those who do their part, we confess that Christ actually accomplished justification once for all by his active suffering all his life and especially on the cross (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 37). Christ provided for us what we could not provide for ourselves. That is why we say that justification is an act of God’s free grace to us sinners. God provided for us what we could not and would not provide for ourselves. Like the ram in the thicket, he provided a substitute in the person and work of God the Son incarnate, our Lord Jesus. All that he did for us is reckoned to us. That is why God requires nothing of us for justification except faith—and that too is the gift of God lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8–10).
Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
Rome defined faith as a Spirit-wrought virtue, which had intrinsic power. For Rome, faith is way of talking about sanctification. For us Protestants faith, in justification, is not a virtue. It has no inherent strength or power. Rather, according to the Larger Catechism, faith is the sole instrument (Belgic Confession, art. 23), a saving grace, given to us by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, as part of which we recognize the greatness of our sin and misery, we assent to the truth of the gospel promise, and “receive and rest” on Christ and his righteousness announced to us in the gospel.
Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.
Contra Rome and the Federal Visionists, we say that true faith is always accompanied by other graces (e.g., good works) but those things are the fruit of true faith and justification. Rome taught that the other graces are what make faith what it is (fides formata caritate). We deny the Roman doctrine. It is not our sanctity, it is not charity (love) poured forth into our hearts that makes faith powerful. It is the object of faith, Christ, who makes faith powerful. Faith is, as Luther said, an empty hand. Faith is the sole instrument of justification because Christ is the only Savior and we come into possession of his justifying righteousness by trusting in, resting on and receiving his righteousness alone.
At every point where Rome and moralists like Richard Baxter tried to lead us away from Paul and Luther on justification, the Westminster Assembly and all confessional Presbyterians resisted stoutly. The adopted a thoroughly Protestant definition of justification that explicitly rejected sanctification as any part of our justification. They explicitly rejected any attempt to redefine faith as a virtue toward justification.
Red herrings and shell games are a potential distraction from what confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches actually confess. The confessions are like a secret weapon to defeat the shell game. We don’t have to wonder what we believe and we don’t have to get lost in an allegedly bewildering array of diverse view on justification. Our churches have read the Word of God together and we confess a clear, plain doctrine of justification together and we do so in considerable detail. Remember, our confessions are not systematic theologies in miniature. No, systematic theologies are teachings of individuals. We don’t confess Charles Hodge or Louis Berkhof. We confess God’s Word together in public, authoritative (under Scripture) documents to which all of our ministers and elders are bound (in most American Presbyterian denominations) and, in some Reformed denominations, to which even the members are bound. You don’t have to try to follow the cup. Just follow God’s Word as confessed by the churches.
1. The Larger Catechism was completed in 1647 and submitted to Parliament. It was approved by the House of Commons in 1648 and by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1649. Here’s a brief introduction to the WLC.