Way back in 2009, when the Federal Vision controversy was still going the claim was made by a proponent of the Federal Vision that there is not a single, agreed doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone but rather there were a number a doctrines of justification adopted by the Reformed. I responded then as I respond now: That claim is patent nonsense. That this claim, which is so easily disproven, continues to arise (and in surprising places I might add) supports my contention that the moralists will never quit—which I wrote even before the controversy had fully ended. I say that because the historical pattern is clear. Confessional Protestants (i.e., those who actually belief, preach, and teach what the Protestant churches confessed on justification in the 16th and 17th centuries) articulate the doctrine of justification. That unequivocal announcement of God’s favor to sinners, while they are yet sinners (Rom 5:8). There is a reaction from moralists who fear that a clear, unequivocal declaration of God’s grace to sinners will encourage people to sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1) reply either by openly contradicting the Protestant doctrine (Richard Baxter) or by subtly subverting it by implying that though faith has its place our Spirit-wrought works also have their place in the doctrine of justification (Norman Shepherd). Sometimes this is done openly, as Shepherd did in 1974–75 when he taught justification by grace, through “faith and works.” That language was later modified to “faithfulness.” After all, who can contest that Christians ought to be faithful? Of course the question has never been whether Christians ought to be faithful. The question has always been to what end? The doctrine of the Reformed churches has always been that good works are the fruit of justification and not the ground or instrument of justification. Belgic Confession Art. 24 says:
We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.
Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.
To say or even to imply that Christians must be faithful in order to be accepted by God is nothing less than an attack on the finished work of Christ and the denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any preacher who says or even implies such thing should be repudiated in the same way the Apostle Paul repudiated the Apostle Peter as a denier of the gospel. Paul wasn’t kidding when he said that if anyone, himself included, even an angel should say anything different about the gospel, “let him be anathema” (Gal 1:8). There is a open move to rehabilitate Shepherd’s doctrine by revising the history of what Shepherd said and what the issues were. As I say, the moralists never go away. Many Christians are more comfortable with Jesus as a facilitator of justification and salvation rather than as the Savior. Like Shepherd, they want to blur the line between the Christ and his Christians by making Jesus the first Christian, by blurring the line between his faith and ours, between his obedience and ours.
There is also, apparently, a more subtle attempt being made now to make room for Shepherd and his followers. In this instance one finds them talking about justification “by grace” and justification “by faith” but an absolutely essential qualifier is missing: alone (sola). Remember what Calvin said about that powerful little word:
When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.—Commentary on Galatians 5:6, (1548).
The “exclusive particle” to which Calvin referred was the sola in sola fide and sola gratia. In the case of the subtle corrupters of the gospel of undeserved favor received freely through resting, receiving, trusting alone in Christ alone (WCF 11.2; Belgic 23) it is not always what is said but what is not said. It is a sin of omission. The Reformed Churches confess:
We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.
For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”
However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us—for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness. But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place.
And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.
Sometimes the reason the exclusive particle is missing is because they don’t believe it. I’m not saying that everyone who writes or speaks casually by omitting what Calvin called the “exclusive particle” is attempting to subvert the gospel but some are and it’s up to you to pay attention and to ask some diagnostic questions:
- Is this part of a larger pattern?
- What is the context? What else is this author saying that might shed light on this way of speaking?
- Is the author sought (here or elsewhere) to create the impression that though our initial acceptance with God is gracious, our final or future acceptance with him is contingent upon our obedience or sanctification?
- Does this author imply that our present acceptance with God now is not final?
Theodore Beza (1519–1605) is one of our best, if most abused and neglected, theologians. He was Calvin’s successor in Geneva as the leader of the Company of Pastors in Geneva. He was also a firm adherent to “the exclusive particle.” In his ministry he repeatedly defended the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. You’ll notice that I said “Protestant.” He was one of the Reformed ministers who published The Harmony of Confessions in 1581. The first document listed in the “catalogue of confessions from which the Harmony was drawn” was the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530). As far as Calvin, Beza, and the Reformed consensus in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was not only a single Reformed doctrine of justification but a single Protestant doctrine of justification and it certainly excluded works as any part of the ground or instrument of justification.
In the mid-1550s Beza wrote a brief, popular but very helpful confession of the Reformed faith. His account of justification is a breath of fresh air:
Here is the explanation of our justification by faith alone: faith is the instrument which receives Jesus Christ and, consequently, which receives his righteousness, that is to say, all perfection. When therefore, after St Paul (Rom 1:17; 2:32-27; 4:3; 5:1; 9:30-33; 11:6; Gal 2:16-21; 3:9, 10, 18; Phil 3:9; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5; Heb 11:7) we say that we are justified by faith alone, or freely, or by faith without works (for all these ways of speaking give the same sense), we do not say that faith is a virtue which makes us righteous in ourselves, before God. For this would be to put faith in the place of Jesus Christ who is, alone, our perfect and entire righteousness.
But we speak thus with the Apostle, and we say that by faith alone we are justified inasmuch as it embraces Him who justifies us, Jesus Christ, to whom it unites and joins us. We are then make partakers of Him and all the benefits which He possesses. These, being imputed and gifted to us, are more than sufficient to make us acquitted and accounted righteous before God.
If you’re reading carefully you might have noticed some strong similarities between the language the Beza used and the language adopted by the Reformed Churches in the Belgic Confession. That’s because this little confession was likely one of the source documents for the Belgic Confession. There is a normative Reformed doctrine of justification. There is a mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy and its boundaries, especially on the article of the standing or falling of the church, are not endlessly elastic. To omit the sola or or to make our acceptance with God conditional upon our obedience is destructive of the church. Has there been some variety of expression on the doctrine of justification among Reformed writers over the centuries? Yes, there are always outliers but they do not define our confession nor does the exception become the norm. Beware of those who appeal to the outliers as if they were or are or should become the norm.