Editor’s note: The following is the compete chapter as it appeared in R. Scott Clark, ed., Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 267–84. In 2021 the publisher returned the publication rights to the copyright holder and the chapter is presented here as a service to the public by the Heidelberg Reformation Association. The material is copyright. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to link to this chapter but you are not entitled to reproduce it in any way without permission of the copyright holder.
In 1522 Martin Luther published his German translation of the New Testament. He had been at work on this translation for about a year and would eventually translate the entire Scripture into the German language, providing for German-speaking people the version of the Bible that would have roughly have the same influence, authority, and life as the AV did among English-speaking people. Whereas it took a whole committee of Englishmen to translate the Bible, Martin Luther did it alone. In his translation of Romans 3:28 he rendered the Greek in these words: “So halten wir nun dafür dass der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben” (therefore we maintained that a man is justified, not by the works of the law, but by faith alone).1
1. Die Bibel oder die Ganze Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments: Nach der Deutschen Übersetzung Martin Luthers (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1956), my translation.
Luther’s influential translation of Romans 3:28 became the subject of a great deal of controversy. Roman Catholic critics responded that the word alone (allein) was not in the Greek text. They argued that the only place in the Bible where the phrase faith alone occurred was in James 2:24, where the apostle James rejected the idea. Luther and many other Protestants answered this criticism. John Calvin in particular responded in a powerful way in his commentary on Romans: “Those, too, who falsely accuse us of asserting that according to Scripture we are justified by faith alone, since the exclusive particle alone is nowhere to be found in Scripture, are refuted by this same argument. But if justification does not depend either on the law, or on ourselves, why should it not be ascribed to mercy alone? And if it is of mercy alone, then it is of faith alone.”2 Defending sola fide, Calvin put it more simply in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Does not he who takes everything from works firmly enough ascribe everything to faith alone?” (Institutes 3.11.19). In other words, Calvin and Luther said in effect that the use of the word alone in the translation is to make clear the force of the Greek, which the medieval commentators and interpreters never understood.
What did the Reformers mean by “faith alone”? In answering that question, we will focus attention on the teaching of Calvin. For this reason, it is important to underscore that the Reformation speaks with one voice on this point. Luther and Reformed theologians are agreed about justification and about faith alone. The contention that the Reformed somehow have a distinctive doctrine of justification is simply false and can be articulated and defended only by those who do not understand either Lutheran or Reformed theologies. Herman Bavinck, one of the great Dutch Reformed scholars and theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writes in his Reformed Dogmatics: “There is no essential difference on the doctrine of justification between the Lutheran and the Reformed theology.”3 Bavinck’s is not an idiosyncratic view; rather it is the almost universal
2. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), ad Rom 3:21.
3. Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen: Kok, 1911), 4.208: “In de leer der rechtvaardigmaking is er zakelijk tusschen de Luthersche en de Gereformeerde theologie geen verschil.”
testimony of Reformed theologians. The Reformed do not have a theology of justification or of faith alone different from that of the Lutherans, but there is a common Reformation theology, a common Reformation doctrine here, that the Lutheran and Reformed uphold together.
In responding to those who are critical of justification by faith alone, the doctrine can be examined in three ways: the medieval definition of faith, what Calvin taught on faith alone, and the apostle Paul’s doctrine. It is good to know what Calvin said; it is much more important to know what Paul said. To anticipate our conclusion: we will find that Calvin faithfully summarized what Paul taught.”
The Roman Doctrine of fides formata
The medieval church consistently taught that faith, in its essence, was simply or implicitly a mental category or habit to which the believer must assent, fides informis. Thomas Aquinas writes: “Hence if anyone wishes to reduce these words to the form of a definition, he may say: ‘Faith is a habit [habitus mentis] of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, and which causes the intellect [intellectum] to assent to things not seen’” (Summa theologiae II-II Q. 4.1). For medieval theology, faith alone means mental assent to doctrinal truth. Such assent is a necessary beginning to salvation, but by no means saving in itself.
Saving faith must be more than unformed faith. To unformed faith must be added love, which gives form, life, and saving effect to faith. Again Thomas Aquinas: “Charity is not the intrinsic form of faith, but that which brings the act of faith to its form” (Summa theologiae II-II Q. 4.4).4 This doctrine of fides formata caritate teaches that as unformed faith perfects the intellect so formed faith perfects the will. A faith that is “formed by love” is that infused into man and makes him capable of producing good works. Thomas summarizes: “Unformed faith is the cause of servile fear. Formed faith is the cause of
4. Quoted from Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (trans. A. M. Fairweather; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 265. See also Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (New York: Blackfriars, 1972), 31.116–17.
filial fear, since it is through charity that faith causes man to adhere to God, and to be subject to him” (Summa theologiae II-II Q. 7).
The medieval understanding of faith, taught clearly by Thomas, was officially adopted by the Council of Trent: “For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of his body” (session 6, chapter 7 [Schaff 2.96]). Trent’s canons on justification also address this matter:
If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God: let him be anathema.
If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema. (session 6, canons 11–12 [Schaff 2.112–13, emphasis original])
When the Reformers wrote of faith alone, they, of course, did not mean that we are justified by doctrinal assent alone. They meant something quite different by faith than what the medieval theologians had meant. Trent understood their doctrine of faith alone and anathematized it clearly in session 6, canon 12.
Calvin’s Doctrine of sola fide
In his great work Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin focused the third book formally on the work of the Holy Spirit, but the third book is almost entirely a book on faith. Calvin begins: “The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself” (Institutes 3.1.1). The Holy Spirit is the Christian’s union with Jesus Christ. Some contemporary Reformed theologians make much of union with Christ as a key doctrine.5 Specifically how did Calvin understand the
5. “See, e.g., Craig B. Carpenter, “A Question of Union with Christ? Calvin and Trent on Justification,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 363–86.
union of the believer with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit? He writes: “All that he [Christ] possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith” (3.1.1). And: “Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit” (3.1.4). The union that the Holy Spirit creates with Christ for us is through the gift of faith.
All the rest of book 3 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion is on faith: a definition of faith (Institutes 3.2), the effect of faith in sanctification (3.3–10), the effect of faith in justification (3.11–18), freedom as an effect of faith (3.19), prayer as an effect of faith (3.20), the source of faith in divine election (3.21–24), and the outcome of faith in the Christian’s resurrection at the last day (3.25).
As Calvin begins his discussion of faith, he indicates the centrality of faith to the saving plan of God:
First, God lays down for us through the law what we should do; if we then fail in any part of it, that dreadful sentence of eternal death which it pronounces will rest upon us. Secondly, it is not only hard, but above our strength and beyond all our abilities, to fulfill the law to the letter; thus, if we look to ourselves only, and ponder what condition we deserve, no trace of good hope will remain; but cast away by God, we shall lie under eternal death. Thirdly, it has been explained that there is but one means of liberation that can rescue us from such miserable calamity: the appearance of Christ the Redeemer, through whose hand, the Heavenly Father, pitying us out of his infinite goodness and mercy, willed to help us; if, indeed, with firm faith we embrace this mercy and rest in it with steadfast hope. (Institutes 3.2.1)
In book 2 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes in great detail about the work of Christ, and in book 3 he examines the character of the faith that unites us to Christ and the benefits of his work under four headings. The first heading is faith and knowledge. Faith is knowledge. This knowledge is not just knowledge of historical facts, rather this knowledge is above all else knowledge of God’s attitude toward us in Christ and for Christ’s sake: “Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. And this is, indeed, knowledge not only of God but of the divine will. . . . We know that God is our
merciful Father, because of reconciliation effected through Christ” (Institutes 3.2.2).6 Faith knows about Christ and his reconciling work on our behalf. It knows that because of Christ’s work the Father is reconciled to us. The Father who loved us and gave Christ for us is now reconciled to us through that work of Christ. We need to know that gospel promise.
Calvin’s teaching here opposes the medieval teaching known as “implicit faith.” The doctrine of implicit faith taught that Christians did not need to know the teaching of the Scriptures and the church, but needed to believe only that whatever the church teaches is true (cf. Institutes 3.2.2–5).6 By contrast, Calvin and the whole Reformation insist that Christianity was not ignorance or blind obedience to the church. Christianity is knowing what Christ has done for us and how God now sees us in Christ. So in Calvin’s basic definition of faith, knowledge is fundamental: “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (3.2.7).
Calvin’s second concern was to teach clearly that faith is trust. It is a trusting and confident knowledge:
As faith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion, so it is not content with an obscure and confused conception; but requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved. For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful. (Institutes 3.2.15)
6. Following the editorial notes in John Calvin, Opera selecta (ed. P. Barth and G. Niesel; Munich: Kaiser, 1962), 3.10n1, John T. McNeill in Institutes 1.544n8 cites Lombard’s Sentences 3.25.1–4 and Aquinas’s Summa theologiae II-II Q. 2.5–8, as examples of those of whom Calvin might have been thinking when he attacked the “Schoolmen” who “ruinously delude poor, miserable folk” with their doctrine of “implicit faith” (Institutes 3.2.2). Calvin’s relations to medieval Scholasticism were more complicated, however, than these notes suggest. See Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 46–61.
Especially as a pastor, Calvin understood the trusting character of faith. He knew that in the trials and difficulties of life, it is hard to believe that God is faithful. God sometimes seems as much absent as faithful, as much forgetful as remembering, as much indifferent as caring. So, the essence of faith is that we know and trust that God in Christ is faithful to us and will redeem us.
When Calvin declares that faith is “full and fixed certainty,” he does not mean that Christians do not struggle in this life:
Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief. Far, indeed, are we from putting their consciences in any peaceful repose, undisturbed by any tumult at all. Yet, once again, we deny that, in whatever way they are afflicted, they fall away and depart from the certain assurance received from God’s mercy. (Institutes 3.2.17)
Christians do face doubt and anxiety, but faith always triumphs in the end: “The end of the conflict is always this: that faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and seem too imperil it” (Institutes 3.2.18). Calvin expands this thought:
For faith does not certainly promise itself either length of years or honor or riches in this life, since the Lord willed that none of these things be appointed for us. But it is content with this certainty: that, however many things fail us that have to do with the maintenance of this life, God will never fail. Rather, the chief assurance of faith rests in the expectation of the life to come, which has been placed beyond doubt through the Word of God. (Institutes 3.2.28)
Faith in all struggles looks to the righteousness of Christ to avoid eternal death and to possess eternal life: “Faith properly begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it. For in God faith seeks life: a life that is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and only in a freely given promise” (Institutes 3.2.29)
Third, Calvin teaches that faith was the gift of God’s grace. The Christian’s faith comes from God’s plan and from the working of the Holy Spirit: “Therefore, as we cannot come to Christ unless we be drawn by the Spirit of God, so when we are drawn we are lifted up in mind and heart above our understanding” (Institutes 3.2.34). Christians know and trust what they could have never known and trusted left to themselves apart from the Spirit of God.
Fourth, Calvin explains the relation of faith and love. As noted above, the medieval doctors suggested that an implicit faith became saving only when formed by love. Calvin sees that this teaching reversed the proper relationship of faith and love: “Also, they pointlessly strive after the foolish subtlety that we are justified by faith alone, which acts through love, so that righteousness depends upon love. Indeed, we confess with Paul that no other faith justifies ‘but faith working through love’ [Gal 5:6]. But it does not take its power to justify from that working of love. Indeed, it justifies in no other way but in that it leads us into fellowship in the righteousness of Christ” (Institutes 3.11.20). Calvin also writes: “The teaching of the Schoolmen, that love is prior to faith and hope, is mere madness; for it is faith alone that first engenders love in us” (3.2.41). Where Rome conflated faith and love, justification and sanctification, Calvin teaches that it is faith alone that produces love.
Faith, Calvin argues, looks away from self to rest in Christ for justification. Therefore, even a weak and imperfect faith still connects with Christ and his perfection when it is genuine. (By contrast our love is always weak and imperfect in itself and as a virtue in us cannot stand in God’s judgment because of that imperfection.) True faith is also the fountain of sanctification, love, and repentance. Calvin contemplated no kind of Christian life that was not progressing in holiness.
What Calvin taught on faith and love is also what Luther taught. Luther complained that some people were abusing the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther was adamant at this point: “To preach as follows (as some have formerly done, and some mad spirits are still doing) would be wrong and intolerable: Although you do not keep the commandments, do not love God and your neighbor, aye, although you are an adulterer, this does not matter; if you believe, you will be saved.” Luther utterly rejected such a notion: “No, my good man, this will not
do! You will not possess the kingdom of heaven.”7 Luther, like Calvin, taught that the true faith that justifies is a faith that leads also to sanctification. Those who totally lack sanctification can make no claim of having true faith. Calvin and Luther are at one on this point.
After defining faith (Institutes 3.2), Calvin develops the sanctifying effect of faith (3.3–10). In this way, he makes clear how important sanctification was in true religion. Then he comes to the subject of justification as the effect of faith:
Let us sum these up. Christ was given us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. Of regeneration, indeed, the second of these gifts, I have said what seemed sufficient. The theme of justification was therefore more lightly touched upon because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God. . . . Therefore we must now discuss these matters [i.e., justification] thoroughly. And we must so discuss them as to bear in mind that this is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. (Institutes 3.11.1)
The pious life rests on the foundation of its relationship with God. For the Reformation, reconciliation precedes sanctification.
Calvin insists that reconciliation means that the Christian is connected to the perfect righteousness of Christ by that faith that looks away from itself, which is only an instrument of receiving the work of Christ:
7. Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology (ed. Ewald M. Plass; St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 1.494.
Faith, even though of itself it is of no worth or price, can justify us by bringing Christ, just as a pot crammed with money makes a man rich. Therefore, I say that faith, which is only the instrument for receiving righteousness, is ignorantly confused with Christ, who is the material cause and at the same time the Author and Minister of this great benefit. Now we have disposed of the problem as to how the term “faith” ought to be understood when justification is under consideration. (Institutes 3.11.7)
In an arresting image here, Calvin teaches that as money, not the pot, makes one rich, so Christ’s work held by faith reconciles the Christian to God.
Calvin again notes that this faith alone, which looks to Christ alone, has its works, but its works, its fruit, or its outcome are in no way part of justification:
For, according to them [the Sophists], man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. . . . Still they do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal 3:11–12]. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled what the law commands should obtain salvation; but this is the righteousness of faith, to believe that Christ died and rose again [Rom 10:5, 9]. . . .
From this it follows that not even spiritual works come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith. (Institutes 3.11.14)
In his discussion of works, Calvin anticipates the great error of many contemporary critics of the Reformation doctrine. They think that as long as they say that salvation is by grace alone they have said all they need to say theologically, but many medieval theologians said exactly that. They taught that grace alone worked to transform and sanctify the life and that all the works of the Christian are the fruit of grace. Such an improved life, however, is still an imperfect life and cannot stand in the judgment. Calvin summarizes the situation succinctly: “If righteousness is revealed in the gospel, surely no
mutilated or half righteousness but a full and perfect righteousness is contained there. The law therefore has no place in it” (Institutes 3.11.19). What one needs to stand in the judgment, Calvin declares over and over again, is a perfect righteousness. No matter how much progress one makes in grace during this life, so that one’s life becomes holier, holier, and holier, it will never get to the point where it will be able to stand in the judgment.
Calvin’s teaching on faith alone is clear. He believed that he was simply teaching what the apostle Paul had taught in his letter to the Romans. Following Calvin and the Reformation, we now turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans to examine what the apostle taught about justification.
The Biblical Doctrine of sola fide
In the current situation, however, we must pause to ask whether, as the people of God, we can turn to the book of Romans with the expectation of understanding the apostle’s basic teaching there. Many voices suggest that we cannot, but that we can understand Paul only if some expert explains him to us. We need to be renewed in the true Protestant conviction that God has spoken clearly in his word. Psalm 119:105 assures us, “Your word is a lamp to my feet / and a light to my path” (ESV). God is successful in revealing himself. Too much of modern theology rests on the idea that somehow God has failed to be clear in his revelation. We must utterly reject that notion.
Still, we must explain why there are so many competing interpretations of the Bible. In Romans 1:18 Paul gave a clear answer: sinners suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Why do people fail to understand the Bible? They have a moral problem as much as an intellectual problem. They suppress the truth. They do not want to see it. There is deep in the hearts of sinners a conviction that they do not want to acknowledge that they are utterly lost in sin and unable to help themselves. They do not want to have to acknowledge that they can do nothing to help themselves. They do not want to acknowledge that Christ alone has done everything for their salvation.
In our day, this moral problem has affected much biblical scholarship and further weakened itself by divorcing itself from the church, the confessions, and the orthodox community of faith. Biblical scholarship too often has become indifferent to theology, indifferent to the responsibility to explain how one section of Scripture relates to other sections of Scripture, and indifferent to the spiritual implications of its work for the life of the church. We must reject a biblical scholarship that asks us to trust experts and abdicate our own responsibility to read and reflect. We have to beware of biblical scholars who are constantly creating a speculative environment and context for understanding the Bible by which they make the Bible say the opposite of what it says.8
This has happened in contemporary discussions of whether women can hold the offices of minister and elder in the church. Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach” (1 Tim 2:12 ESV), but some scholars create a context for that statement so that Paul is read as saying, “I want women to teach.”9 The same thing has happened with the issue of homosexuality.10 Scholars create a speculative context in which to interpret Paul’s prohibitions against homosexuality, so that they discover that Paul supports committed homosexual relationships. Such scholarship turns the Bible on its head and suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. By contrast, scholars who listen carefully to the Word greatly aid the church in understanding the Bible, but the church is not dependent even on faithful scholars to understand the Bible’s basic message of redemption.11
That basic message of redemption is clear in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He began this letter, as he began several of his letters, by introducing major themes of the letter in a noncontroversial context.
8. In his refutation of the new perspective on Paul, Guy Prentiss Waters exposes this tendency; Justification and the New Perspective on Paul (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 193.
9. Cf. Susan T. Foh’s Women and the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979) and James B. Hurley’s Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), who cite scholars who argue in this way.
10. Cf. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983).
11. This is not to say that the church should ignore scholarly reflection on exegetical or theological matters. After all, this volume contains the reflections of scholars trained in their particular academic fields. Scholarly reflection should, however, never be elevated as an authority above Scripture and the church’s confessions of faith.
He wrote of the gospel (1:1–2), the Jewish background of the gospel (1:2–3), his particular ministry to the Gentiles (1:5, 13), and the common application of the gospel to Jews and Gentiles (1:14, 16).
Intriguingly, Paul summarized his ministry as calling Gentiles to “the obedience that comes from faith” (1:5 NIV) or, more literally, “the obedience of faith” (ESV). What did Paul mean by this phrase? He might simply have meant, as the NIV translators concluded, that obedience is the fruit of faith. He might also be saying something a little ironic here. To his critics who accused him of antinomianism and stressed the necessity of obedience as foundational to justification, Paul might have wanted to show them what true gospel obedience was. It is as if Paul implicitly asked them: what obedience does God want of you? His answer, summarized in 1:5 and developed in the next chapters of the letter, is that the gospel obedience that God calls for is faith. Paul was not suggesting that believing is the one work God rewards, but rather was ironically teaching that faith looks away from itself and rests in the obedience of another. His gospel is the gospel of Jesus’s work (1:2–5).
Paul’s expression the obedience of faith is parallel to the way in which Jesus taught in John 6. The crowd asked Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:28 ESV). Jesus replied—possibly with an ironic smile—“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (6:29 ESV). The work of God for Christians is that they believe in Jesus.
Paul’s introduction to Romans is particularly appropriate for a letter to a church that was largely Gentile and in which his apostolic ministry and teaching had been much maligned. He wrote in Romans 3:8: “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying” (ESV). His critics were claiming that the apostle Paul’s message was, “Do evil, that good may result.” They maintained that Paul was antinomian and antiholiness and that he preached a gospel of grace so free that he did not care how one lived. Some critics actually said that Paul wanted Christians to do evil, because then they would really understand grace.
Paul was writing to the Romans, at least in part, to set the record straight. He utterly rejected his critics’ characterization. Paul not only addressed their slander in Romans 3, but he returned to it in 6:1: “Are
we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (ESV). The intriguing conclusion that we must draw from 3:8 and 6:1 is that people could conceive that Paul was indifferent to holiness. We see that Paul taught a gospel—and a doctrine of justification—so full, complete, free, and glorious in Christ that some people could mishear him as if he were indifferent to holiness.
This misunderstanding of Paul suggests a critical question for some of his interpreters. Would anyone ever read the federal-vision writers or Norman Shepherd or the new perspective on Paul or Thomas Aquinas or the Council of Trent and come with the question to them: Should we sin that grace may abound? That question would never, could never, arise for anyone who has read these teachers. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones and other defenders of the Reformation doctrine of justification say: If no one ever comes to you after you preach the gospel and asks, “So should we sin so that grace may abound?” you have probably never preached the gospel.
The true biblical doctrine of justification by faith has to be formulated with great precision and care to teach both the glorious free justification that we have in Christ and its fruit in holiness. True doctrine is like walking a tight rope. One can fall off the tight rope of justification in two directions: the antinomian direction and the neonomian direction. Both the antinomian and the neonomian miss the biblical doctrine of justification.
As Paul vindicated himself from the charge of antinomianism, so he warned the Roman church against neonomianism. He refuted the teaching of his opponents, which seemed to be saying that Gentiles could be right with God only if they would become Jews and keep the law of Moses. Paul’s opponents taught that the gospel was the good news that Gentiles at long last could become Jews and enter into the inheritance of the preferred status of Jews, but Paul insisted that this was not the gospel.
Paul readily acknowledged that Jews enjoyed certain priorities and privileges in redemptive history (Rom 1:16; 3:1–2). He went on to argue, however, that in a fundamental sense Jews and Gentiles were in exactly the same situation before God. Paul stressed that point in part to refute his critics, who were constantly teaching the superiority of Judaism and insisting that Gentiles needed to become Jews.
In contrast, Paul declared that Jews and Gentiles were in the same situation. They both have law and they both were obligated to live by it. Obviously, the Jews had the law in the Torah, but Paul belabored the point in Romans to make clear that Gentiles also know at least something of the holy will of God. The Gentiles know the truth (1:18, 25), they possess knowledge of God (1:19, 28), and they have derived understanding from creation (1:20) or from nature (1:26). Gentiles know the righteous decree of God (1:32), and indeed they have the law written in their hearts (2:14–15).
For our purposes, we do not need a detailed discussion of all the implications of the law to which Paul referred in Romans. His basic point was simply this: the Jews have law, the Gentiles have law, and they are all obligated to live according to the law that they have. He went on to conclude that everyone would be judged according to the law that they had, in terms of how their lives measured up to law.
In his discussion in Romans 2, Paul recognized that those who broke the law would be judged by it and that those who kept the law would be vindicated by it. Some interpreters get so lost in the forest looking for trees that they actually seem to think that Paul was arguing that some people could keep the law and be vindicated by it. Unless Paul lost his mind somewhere between Romans 1 and Romans 3 he could not be saying that. In Romans he repeatedly taught the universality of human sin and destituteness (1:18, 20, 28–29; 2:12). Paul summarized all that he had been teaching in Romans 1–3: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23 ESV). Paul did not add a footnote to this statement: “Except those who actually keep the law and therefore are vindicated by it.” It is a violation of logic, clear thinking, theology, and exegesis not to allow Paul’s conclusion in Romans 3 to determine what he is arguing in Romans 2. In Romans 2, Paul spoke hypothetically about being vindicated by the law. Certainly, anyone who kept the law would be vindicated by it, but could anyone keep the law? The conclusion in Romans 3 was crystal clear—no one could: “None is righteous . . . no one seeks for God . . . no one does good” (3:10–12 ESV). All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Paul concluded: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20 ESV).
Is the law good? Of course it is (7:12). By its very goodness, however, the law shows sinners their sin and inability to be righteous. By contrast, the gospel, as Paul taught in Romans 1–3, is this: sinners who do not and cannot have a righteousness of their own can find righteousness in another: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (3:21 ESV). The good news is that God has provided a righteousness of his own apart from the law and all of its demands.
Is the “righteousness of God” that is “apart from law” really apart from the whole law? Is the “law” (3:21) equivalent to the “works of the law” (3:20, 28)? Many clever interpreters, from the ancient church period until the twentieth century, argue that “law” and “works of the law” here in Paul are just part of the law. These works of the law are the ceremonial requirements of the law, such as circumcision, dietary laws, or special holidays. These interpreters argue that no one can be justified by those ceremonial works of the law, but they say that one can be justified by the moral law. They deny that Paul was talking about the moral law when he rejected works of the law. They ignore in their interpretation the comprehensive character of 3:21 and the contrast Paul repeatedly drew between faith and law (3:27–4:6). For Paul, works of the law and the law are indeed synonymous in Romans 3, but the works of the law are the moral works of the law as well as every other kind. Calvin demonstrates this very effectively in Institutes 3.11.20. Jonathan Edwards also argues the case brilliantly and convincingly in his treatise “Justification by Faith Alone.”12 Paul has argued that God will judge our works by the law to determine whether they are good, acceptable, and deserving a reward (4:2). The contrast Paul made in 3:27–31 is between a righteousness that comes by law and a righteousness that comes from Christ and is received by faith alone. Paul really could not be clearer. Paul indeed taught that faith stands alone in receiving justification from the work of Christ (3:24–26). Justification is not received or maintained by any kind of working, any kind of moral improvement, or any kind of sanctifying development.
12. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), 1.630–35; and idem, Works (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 19.167.
Calvin believes that Paul used Abraham as an example to press justification by faith alone. For Paul, Abraham was the father of the faithful. Abraham believed both before he was circumcised and after he was circumcised, so he was the father of the uncircumcised and of the circumcised. He was the father of all Christians, whether Jew and Gentile. Therefore, what is true of Abraham is true of all of Christians. The truth about Abraham is that he had nothing about which to boast. Abraham could not boast because he was justified by faith alone: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3 ESV). Faith was foundational for Abraham.
Paul made clear at the beginning of Romans 4 that the justification of Abraham was the justification of the “ungodly” (4:5 ESV) or “wicked” (NIV). Calvin presses the question: Where do we read in Scripture that Abraham believed that it was reckoned to him as righteousness? Obviously Paul was citing Genesis 15, but, Calvin notes, Abraham had become a follower of God in Genesis 12. Abraham had long been a faithful believer before the statement in Genesis 15: “Even though the life of the patriarch [Abraham] was spiritual and well-nigh angelic, he did not have sufficient merit of works to acquire righteousness before God” (Institutes 3.11.14). It was Abraham the faithful, Abraham the obedient, Abraham the godly, whom Paul called wicked. No matter how much progress Abraham made in godliness, he could not stand in the judgment. He needed to be a believer. His righteousness was to be found in the faith that rested in Christ’s righteousness. That was Paul’s argument.
Paul made this point even more clearly in quoting from Psalm 32. David there referred to God’s people as godly (32:6), righteous (32:11), and trusting (32:10). Who are the godly, the righteous, the trusting? They are the ones blessed by having their transgressions forgiven and their sins covered (32:1–2). This David, as God’s servant, as the man after God’s own heart, and as an Israelite who was called forgiven, godly, righteous, and trusting, still had to plead with God: “Enter not into judgment with your servant, / for no one living is righteous before you” (143:2 ESV). Abraham in the best of his service and David in the best of his service had to plead with God not to judge them for their continuing failure in sin and wickedness,
and David and Abraham looked away from themselves to rest in the righteousness that comes from God in Jesus Christ.
Justification is by faith alone. The Reformation got the biblical doctrine of justification exactly right. The new perspective on Paul and the federal vision are not really new, but a reiteration of medieval theological errors. When Thomas Aquinas asked whether God justifies the wicked, he responded that God justifies those who used to be wicked and now have become righteous (Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II Q. 113.1). Such an answer, however, is not faithful to Paul. Paul taught that God justifies wicked people, like godly Abraham and godly David, by faith alone, because only faith receives the imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Only the doctrine of faith alone can lead someone to say with Paul in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV). The truth of Christ and the perfection of his work is critical in the current debates about faith alone, but the peace of the Christian heart and conscience is also at stake. Paul declared that Christians should enjoy a sense of peace with God through faith in Christ. Any claim to teach or preach the gospel that does not lead to such peace is no gospel at all. So Luther was right in understanding Paul: “A man is justified, not by the works of the law, but by faith alone.”
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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