Turretin: The Doctrine Of Justification Is Not A Cold, Academic Debate

VII. This appears more clearly when we come to the thing itself and the controversy is not carried on coldly and unfeelingly in scholastic cloud and dust (as if from a distance), but in wrestling and agony—when the conscience is placed before God and terrified by a sense of sin and of the divine justice, it seeks a way to stand in the judgment and to flee from the wrath to come. It is indeed easy in the shades of the schools to prattle much concerning the worth of inherent righteousness and of works to the justification of men; but when we come into the sight of God, it is necessary to leave such trifles because there the matter is conducted seriously and no ludicrous disputes about words (logomachia) are indulged. Hither our eyes must be altogether raised if we wish to inquire profitably concerning true righteousness; in what way we may answer the heavenly Judge, when he shall have called us to account. Truly while among men the comparison holds good; each one supposes he has what is of some worth and value. But when we rise to the heavenly tribunal and place before our eyes that supreme Judge (not such as our intellects of their own accord imagine, but as he is described to us in Scripture [namely, by whose brightness the stars are darkened; at whose strength the mountains melt; by whose anger the earth is shaken; whose justice not even the angels are equal to bear; who does not make the guilty innocent; whose vengeance when once kindled penetrates even to the lowest depths of hell]), then in an instant the vain confidence of men perishes and falls and conscience is compelled (whatever it may have proudly boasted before men concerning its own righteousness) to deprecate the judgment and to confess that it has nothing upon which it can rely before God. And so it cries out with David, “Lord, if thou marked iniquity, who can stand?”; and elsewhere, “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, because no flesh will be justified in thy sight.”

VIII. Here then is the true state of the controversy. When the mind is thoroughly terrified with the consciousness of sin and a sense of God’s wrath, what is that thing on account of which he may be acquitted before God and be reckoned a righteous person? What is that righteousness which he ought to oppose to the judgment of God that he may not be condemned according to the strict demands of the law (akribodikaion), but may obtain remission of sins and a right to eternal life? Is it righteousness inhering in us and inchoate holiness or the righteousness and obedience of Christ alone imputed to us? Our opponents hold the former; we the latter. We are about to demonstrate this distinctly: (1) as to inherent righteousness; (2) as to imputed righteousness. Of the latter we will treat in the next question; of the former we speak now.

Francis Turretin (1623–87), Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. G. M. Giger, ed. J. T. Dennison, 3 vols (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1992–97), 2.639–40. (HT: Inwoo Lee)

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  • Inwoo Lee
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    Inwoo Lee (BA, UCSD) earned his MA (Historical Theology) in 2020 from Westminster Seminary California and is author of “Righteous Before God: William Perkins’ Doctrine of Justification in Elizabethan England” (MA Thesis, Westminster Seminary California, 2020). He lives in the Great Seoul area, in South Korea with his wife Holly.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    In the third paragraph, is “What is that righteousness which he ought to opposed to the judgment…” a typo? I can’t seem to make sense of it, or is there something I’m missing?

  2. Great quote, thank you.

    “wrestling and agony—when the conscience is placed before God and terrified by a sense of sin and of the divine justice…”

    I wonder how many people feel that today. Probably not those who draft carefully worded “ecumenical” definitions of justification to smooth out doctrinal differences btw RC and Protestants.

    Funny how Turrettin himself uses the word “scholastic” is a negative way when so many people do the same with him.

    • Stephanie, I think you raise a very pertinent issue, how many people who identify as Christian have been, “terrified by a sense of sin and of divine justice…?” Much of modern Christendom seems to be directed at making us feel good about ourselves. The message from most pulpits is that God loves you just the way you are, and wants you to feel good about yourself. Such preaching explains away the cross as simply an act of supreme self sacrifice to show that God really loves us, but it ignores the fact that God’s wrath and fury against OUR sin and guilt was being expiated by Christ’s suffering and death, and that his imputed righteousness alone can satisfy God’s demands of perfect obedience. Such preaching does not use the law to drive us to Christ. Instead it quiets the conscience, and promises a right to eternal life with the lie that we are really not that bad, so we can please God, by our best efforts, because God imputes perfect obedience to our best efforts. No wonder that people who accept such preaching demand that worship cater to their tastes. They are really their own savior, and God should be grateful for whatever worship they condescend to give Him.

  3. My nature is continually uncovered and laid bare as I study The Word and the Reformed confessions, exposing my opposition to The Truth.

    “Is it righteousness inhering in us and inchoate holiness or the righteousness and obedience of Christ alone imputed to us? Our opponents hold the former; we the latter.”

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