Where We Are: Justification Under Fire In The Contemporary Scene

Editor’s Note: The following is the complete 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), 25–57. 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 copyrighted. 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.

Is the doctrine of justification under fire in the contemporary church and academy? If it is, such an attack might seem worthy of no special notice, since the Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, grounded in the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, has been under fire from the Roman Catholic Church ever since Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological allies proclaimed this doctrine with such force and eloquence. However, allegations of a contemporary attack on justification point to a different dynamic in recent events. While many Roman Catholics—even many conservative ones—have adopted a remarkably conciliatory tone on justification toward the heirs of the Reformation in recent ecumenical discussions, the alleged attack on justification has come from typically more cordial corners. The field of


biblical studies, and particularly Pauline studies, customarily the haven of Protestants in defense of justification by faith alone against Roman Catholic appeals to ecclesiastical tradition, has risen to challenge the Reformation’s hegemony over the interpretation of Paul on salvation. Even more noteworthy, perhaps, many self-styled Reformed church leaders have probed various aspects of the traditional Reformation doctrine of justification and found them wanting, proposing various revisions for the sake of greater fidelity to Scripture and their own understanding of Reformed Christianity.

Justification is indeed under fire in the contemporary church and academy, and three distinct lines of attack demonstrate it: recent ecumenical discussions, the new perspective on Paul popular among many biblical scholars, and the proposals of those I call “Reformed revisionists.” This essay is not a critique per se of the views expressed in these lines of attack, but rather an attempt to describe these views accurately and fairly, to contrast them with the traditional position of Reformed Christianity, and to identify similarities among these lines of attack in the midst of their differences. In the context of the present book, this essay serves in large part to explain the need for such a book to be written and to set the stage for later essays to defend the Reformed doctrine of justification and to critique its detractors.

Justification in Recent Ecumenical Discussions

Many Roman Catholics have taken a conciliatory tone toward various Protestant groups in recent ecumenical discussions of the doctrine of justification. This does not, however, indicate that Rome has in fact conceded this doctrine to the Reformation. Instead, under the purported goal of moving beyond the old disputes and the condemnations of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, Roman Catholic ecumenists have offered presentations of the doctrine of justification that are vague and ambiguous enough to win endorsement from many Protestants while not denying key aspects of the traditional Roman doctrine or adopting key Reformational distinctives. In other words, recent ecumenical discussions describe a doctrine of justification that is general enough to please many Catholics and Protestants yet nonspecific


enough to avoid offending either side. The result is an optimistic, yet misleading, picture of the amount of agreement on justification that now exists between Roman Catholics and Protestants—at least those Protestants truly committed to confessional, Reformation doctrine.1 Four matters call for examination: two noteworthy recent ecumenical statements addressing justification (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and The Gift of Salvation), Thomas Oden’s ecumenically inspired attempt to identify a consensus on justification through the history of the church, and ecumenical discussions between Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox.

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

Signed on Reformation Day 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (an organization consisting of many, though not all, Lutheran denominations worldwide), the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification deserves scrutiny. The Joint Declaration and the ecumenical discussions from which it emerged are presented as a culmination of many past discussions and statements produced by Lutherans and

  1. One important issue for understanding current ecumenical discussions, though it cannot be considered at length here, is the sensitivity to and interest in the cultural and linguistic contexts in which doctrines are propounded. George A. Lindbeck, for example, a prominent Lutheran ecumenist, argues for a “cultural-linguistic” approach to religion that views doctrines neither as propositional truths nor as expressions of subjective experience, but rather as rules and regulations that define faithful adherence to a community. Given that the communities and their cultural-linguistic contexts have changed since the Reformation era, the mutual Protestant–Roman Catholic condemnations of that era cannot be simply applied today. See Lindbeck’s extended argument in The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984). Prominent Roman Catholic ecumenist Avery Dulles, now a cardinal in New York, seems to reflect such an approach in his reflections on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: “According to an older theological model, ecumenism would aspire to take the statements of the Lutheran Book of Concord and those of the Catholic councils one by one, and examine them atomistically and fit them into a single internally coherent system. What seems to be surfacing is a willingness to acknowledge that we have here two systems that have to be taken holistically. Both take their departure from Scripture, the creeds, and early tradition. But they filter the data through different thought-forms, or languages. . . . In the dialogues of the past fifty years, Catholics and Lutherans have come to respect one another as Christian believers. We find that in spite of our different thought-forms, our different languages, we can say many things—the most important things—in common. . . . For all these reasons it now seems appropriate to measure the Lutheran theses against some standard other than the decrees of Trent.” See “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration,” First Things 98 (Dec. 1999): 29.


Roman Catholics.2 To my knowledge, the Joint Declaration has attained no official standing in either the Roman Catholic Church or particular Lutheran denominations, yet its bold claims about unity among the participants on justification make it something of an ecumenical landmark.

The stated purpose of the Joint Declaration is to summarize the results of these Lutheran–Roman Catholic discussions. Very importantly, it also sets out to show that Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches are able to articulate a common understanding of justification and that whatever differences remain are no longer occasions for doctrinal condemnation.3 As the Joint Declaration itself summarizes, there is “a consensus in the basic truths; the differing explications in particular statements are compatible with it.”4 The Joint Declaration does not summarily dismiss the condemnations leveled by both sides in the days since the Reformation—such as the unmentioned, but undoubtedly presupposed, anathematizing of adherents to the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the Council of Trent5—but points readers to developments and new insights that require present reexamination of divisive questions.6 At one point the Joint Declaration confesses that the “seriousness” of past condemnations cannot be taken away and somewhat humorously remarks that “some were not simply pointless.”7 In light of such a statement, the thoughtful reader is left wondering whether many of Trent’s condemnations—which, in effect, damned Protestants to hell—actually were pointless and whether these too should be taken “seriously.” Left unclear is whether Reformation-era condemnations hit real targets or were instances, on a grand scale, of parties speak-

  1. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), §§3, 6.
  2. Ibid., §§3–4, 13, 41.
  3. Ibid., §14; see also §40.
  4. See the canons concerning justification from the sixth session of the Council of Trent, in Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (ed. H. J. Schroeder; St. Louis: Herder, 1960), 42–46; or The Sources of Catholic Dogma (ed. Henry Denzinger; trans. Roy J. Defarrari; St. Louis: Herder, 1957), 258–61.
  5. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, §7. 7. Ibid., §42.


ing past each other.8 For Roman Catholics who take their church councils seriously and Protestants who take their church confessions seriously, such lack of clarity would seem to be no minor matter, whatever “developments” and “new insights” may have occurred.

What is the doctrine of justification according to the Joint Declaration? At several points along the way the Joint Declaration makes statements that, from a Reformation perspective, are orthodox on their own terms and seemingly in perfect accord with Reformation doctrine. For example, justification means that “Christ himself is our righteousness,” and we are saved by grace alone, “in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part.”9 Furthermore, “Whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.”10 Along the same lines, “We confess together that good works . . . follow justification and are its fruits.”11 The idea that Roman Catholics can say these things together with Lutherans may give reason for great encouragement.

Yet at many other points its claims are either in themselves problematic or noticeably missing key aspects of the doctrine of justification. In what seems to be a general definition of justification, the Joint Declaration says that “justification is the forgiveness of sins . . . , liberation from the dominating power of sin and death . . . and from the curse of the law. . . . It is acceptance into communion with God.”12 Any mention of the imputed righteousness of Christ is absent here. Included, however, is liberation from the power of sin, which sounds very much like the usual language for sanctification, yet is incorporated here into justification itself. The relationship between justification and sanctification gets no clearer later on. One section reads that Lutherans and Roman Catholics together confess that God both forgives sins and frees from sin’s enslaving power, imparts new life, and effects an active love.13 In the language of the Reformation, this is the claim

  1. For an example of the effect of the cultural-linguistic approach to this question, see Karl Lehmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).
  2. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, §15.
  3. Ibid., §25.
  4. Ibid., §37.
  5. Ibid., §11.
  6. Ibid., §22.


that God both justifies and sanctifies, yet the Joint Declaration does not make clear at this point whether both of these actions of God are to be taken as part of justification or as distinct acts—or whether this question is left open as a disagreement that no longer divides. A later section initially offers hope of clarification, yet ultimately does not. In justification, the Joint Declaration says, “a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one’s way of life that necessarily follows from justification. . . . Thereby the basis is indicated from which the renewal of life proceeds, for it comes forth from the love of God imparted to the person in justification. Justification and renewal are joined in Christ, who is present in faith.”14 That God imparts love to a person in justification is decidedly contrary to Protestant doctrine, yet this point is repeated in the following section, which states that justification gives love, faith, and hope.15 According to the Reformation, faith is the instrument by which justification is given, and love is a fruit flowing out of justification. In the Joint Declaration, justification is that which gives faith and love. These are among the more notable examples of how the Reformation’s teaching on justification is denied both by omission (no mention of Christ’s imputed righteousness) and by confusion of distinct things (justification and sanctification, faith and love). Despite assurances to the contrary, it is difficult to conclude that the Lutheran signatories remained true to their Reformation heritage.

The Gift of Salvation

Another important ecumenical statement of recent years, and one that may hit closer to home for many readers, is The Gift of Salvation.16 This document was released in late 1997 by a group of Roman Catholics and evangelicals, many of whom had previously collaborated on the much-discussed 1994 document Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.17 In this earlier statement, the participants hailed the common cause between Roman

  1. Ibid., §26.
  2. Ibid., §27.
  3. See First Things 79 (Jan. 1998): 20–23.
  4. See First Things 43 (May 1994): 15–22.


Catholics and evangelicals in the cultural battles of the day, acknowledged one another as brothers in Christ, and agreed to cooperate in evangelistic efforts, though they confessed that they had important remaining differences. In Gift of Salvation, the participants took up one point of historic disagreement between their two camps: salvation generally and justification in particular. They claim ability “to express a common faith in Christ and so to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ” and “together bear witness to the gift of salvation” despite “some persistent and serious differences.”


In a way similar to the Joint Declaration, Gift of Salvation makes many statements that, taken by themselves, seem quite favorable to the Reformation’s expression of the doctrine of justification. Many of these statements, however, are left ambiguous enough to be potentially consistent with either traditional Protestant or Roman Catholic understandings. A few examples illustrate. Gift of Salvation claims that “justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift.” As Protestant as this sounds, it is not clear whether this statement rules out the Roman Catholic idea of merit that is attained after one’s initial justification (and before one’s final justification).18 Shortly thereafter, the document reads: “In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.” Though justification on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone seems to be Protestant language, however, the context never specifies that this means the imputed obedience of Christ as the sole ground of justification. This lack of specification is significant because the Roman Catholic tradition can also speak of Christ’s work as the basis for justification—but in the sense of being its meritorious cause—and of Christ’s righteousness—but as infused rather than imputed righteousness given to us.19

Following on the heels of this statement is a paragraph in which the signatories describe faith, and they claim that “what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by

  1. For Roman Catholic teaching on this point, see, for example, Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.; Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), §2010.
  2. See Council of Trent, session 6, chapter 7, in Canons and Decrees, 33–34; and Sources of Catholic Dogma, 251–52.


justification by faith alone (sola fide).” One might notice that this is not quite the same as saying that what they affirm is the Reformation doctrine of sola fide. And this is probably not due to careless language, for their description of faith indeed cannot be identified with the Reformation’s understanding of faith. Absent from the functions they ascribe to faith is one that most distinguished the Reformation’s understanding from Rome’s: its extraspective character by which it looks completely outside itself and rests upon the completed work of Christ. Finally, Gift of Salvation affirms that sanctification “is not fully accomplished at the beginning of our life in Christ, but is progressively furthered as we struggle, with God’s grace and help, against adversity and temptation.” Again, taken by themselves, these words might be read as an accurate description of Reformation doctrine. Never specified, however, is whether this progressive sanctification is to be absolutely distinguished from justification itself. Nothing in these words contradicts traditional Roman doctrine, for Rome has taught a progressive sanctification—but one that is in fact an aspect of justification. That idea is not foreclosed by the words of Gift of Salvation.


The conclusion to be drawn from Gift of Salvation, therefore, is similar to that drawn above about the Joint Declaration. Isolated statements sound quite consonant with Reformation teaching about justification, but many of these statements are also consonant with traditional Roman Catholic teaching when ambiguous words and expressions are understood in a slightly different way. Perhaps even more important than what is said is what is not said: there is no fully adequate definition of justifying faith and no description at all of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Gift of Salvation itself seems to admit the truth of this last sentence, for the end of the document describes remaining differences among the participants and includes issues of “imputed and transformative righteousness” and “the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone.” From the standpoint of the Reformation’s understanding of justification, these are not peripheral issues but the heart of the matter. Despite its claims of expressing basic Roman Catholic–evangelical agreement on the nature of the gospel, Gift of


Salvation is misleading insofar as many truly crucial disagreements remain unresolved.

The Oden Proposal

Thomas C. Oden, one of the evangelical signatories of Gift of Salvation, presents an intriguing and compelling argument relevant to the present discussion. In his Justification Reader, he claims that there is “a textually defined consensual classic Christian teaching on salvation by grace through faith,” and hence he sets out to show “how the classic Christian exegetes, mostly of the first five centuries, dealt with Paul’s justification doctrine.”20 Oden laments that contemporary evangelical perceptions of the patristic literature dismiss the church fathers as deniers of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ or even as ignorant of the doctrine of justification.21 Though Oden does not deny that there were ambiguities in the patristic teaching, he argues that a consensus on justification existed among patristic writers that, although distorted in medieval Scholasticism, was recovered in nearly identical form by the Protestant Reformers.22 The Reformation teaching on justification, says Oden, “was not a rescue from all pre-Protestant interpreters, but rather a rescue from only ancillary distortions of patristic thought that developed in the late middle ages.”23 Oden then mentions contemporary ecumenical statements such as the Joint Declaration and claims that “these recent statements are substantially consistent with the consensus established in the patristic period.”24 In summary then, Oden makes the remarkable claim that the patristic, Reformation, and contemporary ecumenical understandings of justification are substantially the same.

Though confident in his claims, Oden is also humble. He asks “Protestant colleagues to admonish me fairly and precisely about what is substantively missing in these patristic justification passages that would be required to pass muster by rigorous classic Protestant teaching stan-

  1. Thomas C. Oden, The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 16.
  2. Ibid., 19.
  3. Ibid., 24.
  4. Ibid., 29.
  5. Ibid., 30.


dards.”25 The present writer is ill equipped to critique Oden’s scholarly expertise in gathering ancient sources, and I am, in fact, very appreciative of Oden’s efforts, which I find of great value. Nevertheless, I believe that the evidence he presents of the patristic consensus on justification, while perhaps being substantively similar to documents such as the Joint Declaration, demonstrates only continuity, not substantial identity, with the Reformers’ teaching. Significantly, Oden clearly includes in the patristic consensus the idea of Christ’s imputed righteousness as the ground of justification,26 but where is the textual evidence? My own reading of his extensive patristic references uncovers only one statement that seems clearly to teach either the active obedience of Christ or the imputation of it to believers, and Oden presents this statement, by Clement of Alexandria, only by way of summary, not quotation.27 Even if Clement did indeed teach the imputed righteousness of Christ, one example surely does not establish a consensus over five centuries. Other readers can judge for themselves whether I have missed other pieces of evidence in Oden’s texts, but at present I must judge that Oden has not proven his case on this point. This means that though the patristic authors said many good and helpful things on justification that were subsequently distorted in medieval theology—and on this narrower claim Oden makes a strong case—they ought to be viewed as forerunners of the more fully developed Reformation position, not as expositors of the full Reformation position itself.28 From the perspective of Reformation Christianity, this is a very valuable claim to be able to make: the Reformers were not inventing the gospel anew, but picking up the patristic doctrine and strengthening it. If the Reformation’s strengthening of the doctrine was biblically accurate, however, present ecumenical reversion to the less developed patristic consensus is hardly more acceptable than would be a present reversion to pre-Nicene expressions of the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of the more developed Nicene expressions.

  1. Ibid., 25.
  2. Ibid., 37.
  3. Ibid., 92. Oden’s two references to Clement on this point, parenthetically in the text and in the footnote (the latter to ANF), do not correspond. Having looked at both cited sections of Clement’s writings, I am unable to determine the basis for Oden’s appeal to them.
  4. Oden seems to suggest such a conclusion as a possible alternative should his stronger thesis fail; see ibid., 49–50.


The Finnish School on Luther

In the 1970s, ecumenical discussions between Finnish Lutheran and Russian Orthodox theologians sparked a major theological project at the University of Helsinki, led by Tuomo Mannermaa.29 Mannermaa and his associates, reading Luther alongside Orthodox literature, claim to have discovered a long-neglected aspect of Luther’s theology, namely, his belief in believers’ union with Christ such that Christ is really present in salvation and the believer has real participation in him. The Finns contrast this reading of Luther with the idea of justification as purely forensic or legal and assert that the true Luther has more in common with the Eastern Orthodox idea of theōsis (deification) than with the soteriology of post-Luther Lutheranism, such as that represented in the Formula of Concord. At one point Mannermaa describes his position:

Luther does not distinguish between the person and the work of Christ. Christ Himself, both his person and his work, is the righteousness of man before God. Christ is both favor (forgiveness of sins, atonement, abolition of wrath) and gift (donum), Christ himself present. Faith means justification precisely on the basis of Christ’s person being present in it as favor and gift. In ipsa fide Christus adest: in faith itself Christ is present, and so the whole of salvation.30

Mannermaa explains that this position contrasts with later Lutheranism, which understood justification as a “totally forensic matter” in that Luther “does not separate the person of Christ from his work. Rather, Christ himself, both his person and his work, is the ground of Christian righteousness.”31

  1. See Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, “Preface,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 1.
  2. Tuomo Mannermaa, “Why Is Luther so Fascinating? Modern Finnish Luther Research,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 14–15.
  3. Tuomo Mannermaa, “Justification and Theosis in Lutheran-Orthodox Perspective,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 28. Similar understandings of Christ’s work and justification are currently being promoted by some in evangelical circles. For a recent example, see Michael F. Bird, “Incorporated Righteousness: A Response to Recent Evangelical Discussion


As a description of the Finnish school on Luther, the above treatment is obviously incomplete. Nevertheless, it exposes another challenge to the Reformation’s doctrine of justification in the world of ecumenical dialogue. Though the main conclusions of the Finnish school do not themselves constitute a constructive biblical claim that the idea of forensic justification is incorrect, the claim that Luther himself did not hold the allegedly Reformation view of justification is inevitably troubling for orthodox Protestants. A doctrine of justification that corrupts the great Reformer’s thought would seem rather suspicious. Thus, whereas documents such as Joint Declaration and Gift of Salvation water down and render incomplete the Reformation doctrine of justification, the Finnish school questions whether the received Reformation doctrine is really the Reformation doctrine at all.32

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul

A second major front on which battles over justification are being fought in the present day is the field of biblical studies—particularly Pauline studies. The so-called new perspective on Paul is a school of thought whose origins can be traced roughly to the publication of E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, a work that has indelibly shaped subsequent New Testament scholarship.33 Sanders’s basic thesis argues that New Testament scholars have incorrectly assumed that the Judaism that Paul confronted was a religion of works-righteousness in which individuals sought to merit their salvation. Picking

concerning the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in Justification,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (June 2004): 253–75.

  1. Though this is not the place for critique, readers may note that competent scholars have critically evaluated the Finnish proposals. Writing from a Reformed stance, yet focusing particularly on the shortcomings of the Finnish historiography, is Carl R. Trueman, “Is the Finnish Line a New Beginning? A Critical Assessment of the Reading of Luther Offered by the Helsinki Circle,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 231–44. If nothing else, the Finnish ecumenical agenda makes their objective historical study suspect. Mannermaa and several of his associates actually hold positions as professors of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki. See Braaten and Jenson, Union with Christ, 21, 25, 42n1, for revealing comments on how their ecumenical agenda drives their research. Trueman also picks up on this point in his critique.
  2. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).


up this thesis as a virtual starting point for their own work, subsequent writers claim that Paul, in epistles such as Romans and Galatians, neither condemned his Jewish opponents for teaching salvation by meritorious works nor offered justification by faith alone as the alternative to this. Instead, advocates of the new perspective on Paul, in various ways, identify controversies over Jewish exclusiveness and the place of Gentiles in the covenant community as the chief matters of concern to Paul.34

Krister Stendahl

Sanders’s work was undoubtedly decisive in birthing this movement in New Testament scholarship. His study had precedents, however. One noteworthy work that clearly anticipates Sanders and later advocates of the new perspective on Paul is a 1963 article by Krister Stendahl.35 According to Stendahl, the introspective conscience has characterized Western religious culture for a very long time. It can be traced back to Augustine’s self-reflections and the development of the medieval penitential system, yet perhaps found its most poignant exemplar in Martin Luther. Luther, after long wrestling with how he could be right with God, found his answer in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Along with so many subsequent interpreters, Luther read back into Paul the same sort of spiritual agony and liberation that he himself experienced. Stendahl argues that such a reading of Paul does not do him justice. He claims instead that Paul experienced no existential angst as a Pharisee, nor was he part of a Jewish religious culture obsessed about individual salvation through obeying the law.

  1. In addition to the most important works promoting the new perspective on Paul discussed below, recent significant books offer critical analysis of the new perspective on Paul from different theological perspectives: Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Peter Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective; with an Essay by Donald A. Hagner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001); D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism (2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001–4); and Mark A. Seifrid, Christ Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
  2. Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199–215.


Furthermore, Stendahl argues that Paul’s epistles focused much more upon the historical plan of redemption than upon individual experience of redemption, pointing to the importance of Jew-Gentile relations in the plan of God and the significance of the coming of the Messiah. At the end of his article, Stendahl makes clear that he does not view an introspective conscience as necessarily a bad thing, but he calls for readers of the New Testament to do more justice to Paul himself and to leave room in Christianity for other sorts of religious experiences.

E. P. Sanders

E. P. Sanders followed Stendahl’s basic trajectory in producing his voluminous comparison of Paul and Palestinian Judaism more than ten years later. Sanders’s analysis of Judaism has been more influential than his interpretation of Paul per se, yet his proposal as a whole deserves description. At the beginning of Paul and Palestinian Juda ism, Sanders announces the several goals of his work. The first goal is to consider, as a general methodological matter, how to compare different but related religions. Sanders then purposes to destroy the view of Palestinian rabbinic Judaism prevalent in the New Testament scholarship of his day and to establish a different interpretation of it. Sanders’s last goals are to propose an understanding of Paul’s work and to compare Paul to Palestinian Judaism.36 Important background for Sanders’s project was the common assumption in New Testament scholarship that Paul and Judaism were antithetical.37 Sanders argues that comparing Paul and Judaism in new and different ways will help to overcome this misperception. Instead of comparing what are determined to be the “essences” or special motifs of different religions, Sanders suggests that one religion should be compared to another, each taken as a whole.38 This may be accomplished, he says, by comparing “patterns of religion”:

A pattern of religion, defined positively, is the description of how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function. “Perceived to

  1. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, xii.
  2. Ibid., 3.
  3. Ibid., 12.


function” has the sense not of what an adherent does on a day-to-day basis, but of how getting in and staying in are understood: the way in which a religion is understood to admit and retain members is considered to be the way it “functions.” . . . A pattern of religion thus has largely to do with the items which a systematic theology classifies under “soteriology.”39

Hence, Sanders intends to describe the relationship between Paul’s pattern of religion and that of the Palestinian Judaism contemporary to Paul.40

Sanders’s analysis of Palestinian Judaism, the longest part of his book and clearly the most important for subsequent scholarship, concludes that its pattern of religion can be described as “covenantal nomism.” With one exception, he claims that “in all the literature surveyed, obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such. It simply keeps an individual in the group which is the recipient of God’s grace.”41 This leads to his summary of the pattern of religion that he calls covenantal nomism:

(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved.

“An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.”42 For Sanders, then, Palestinian Judaism was not about meriting salvation by good works, but about getting into the covenant by God’s grace and staying in the covenant by obedience to the law.

  1. Ibid., 17.
  2. Ibid., 19.
  3. Ibid., 420 (emphasis original).
  4. Ibid., 422.


Given the common Reformation assumption that combating Judaism’s works-righteousness scheme was a chief concern of Paul, Sanders’s interpretation of Palestinian Judaism raises significant questions about Paul’s epistles. Sanders concludes that Paul technically was not a covenantal nomist and hence that his type of religiousness was different from that of Palestinian Judaism. Sanders claims, however, that on the important issue of grace and works Paul and Palestinian Judaism were actually in agreement. For both parties, “there are two aspects of the relationship between grace and works: salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation.”43 Sanders describes Paul’s pattern of religion as “participationist eschatology.” This means that God sent Christ to be the Savior of Jew and Gentile alike and that a person comes to participate in salvation by becoming one with Christ in his death and resurrection. Though this union with Christ becomes complete only upon his second coming, one who lives now in Christ is freed from power and defilement of sin and is called to behave accordingly.44 The charge that Palestinian Judaism was a religion of works-righteousness “is not the heart of Paul’s critique.” Instead, Paul’s polemics against the law were fueled by his “exclusivist soteriology.” For Paul, there was nothing wrong with the law itself—such as emphasizing petty things or tabulating merit—but the law was simply worthless in comparison to union with Christ.45 Likewise, Paul found nothing wrong with Judaism except that it was not Christianity.46

Sanders’s interpretation of Palestinian Judaism, if not his interpretation of Paul, has become virtually normative for advocates of the new perspective on Paul. Accepting the idea that first-century Judaism was not about keeping the law in order to earn salvation, proponents of the new perspective on Paul conclude that Paul must not have been arguing against such ideas, even in his discussions of justification in Romans and Galatians, as readers of the New Testament have long believed. Therefore, they go about the task of reinterpreting Paul’s

  1. Ibid., 543 (emphasis original).
  2. Ibid., 549.
  3. Ibid., 550.
  4. Ibid., 552.


thought, including what he meant by justification. Hence, a new perspective on Paul.

James D. G. Dunn

James Dunn is perhaps the most accomplished New Testament scholar of the new perspective on Paul circle. In his recent comprehensive study of Pauline theology, he dedicates a large section to justification.47 Early in this section, Dunn pays his respects to Sanders and notes that readers of the New Testament have long been guilty of reading Luther—his struggles, his theology, and the Reformation debates he spawned—into Paul. Sanders broke important ground in understanding Judaism, but a better understanding of Paul in light of his Jewish context is still necessary.48

Dunn views interpretation of Paul’s phrase the righteousness of God as the obvious place to begin his analysis of justification. He contrasts the understanding of righteousness in the “Greek worldview” as an ideal for measuring action with its meaning in “Jewish thought” as a relational concept. Though the former represents the usual approach to interpreting Paul’s use of the term, according to Dunn, Paul in fact understood righteousness in its Hebrew sense.49 Specifically, Dunn claims that Paul’s “righteousness of God” denotes God’s faithfulness to his people, his fulfilling the obligations he made in creating the world, calling Abraham, and choosing Israel to be his people.50 Dunn states, in fact, that Paul could take it for granted that both Jewish and Gentile readers of his epistles would understand his language along these lines.51 From this point, Dunn launches his initial salvo on justification itself, concluding that this perspective renders much of the Reformation-era disputes on the doctrine “pointless.” The concern is not whether God makes people righteous (as in Roman Catholicism) or reckons them righteous (as in Protestantism); instead, the concern is his faithfulness: “The covenant God counts the covenant

  1. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
  2. Ibid., 336–39. 49. Ibid., 340–41. 50. Ibid., 342. 51. Ibid., 343–44.


partner as still in partnership, despite the latter’s continued failure. But the covenant partner could hardly fail to be transformed by a living relationship with the life-giving God.”52 Furthermore, Paul’s teaching on the initiative of grace in justification was not a polemic against Pharisees or Judaizers, but “was simply a restatement of the first principles of his own ancestral faith.”53

If Paul was not making arguments about how one is made right with God, but commending the essential teaching of his Jewish heritage on this point, what exactly was he striving against and what fault did he see in those seeking to be justified by “the works of the law”? Dunn points to the importance of understanding the nature of Paul’s conversion and asserts that Paul was converted “from measuring righteousness primarily in terms of covenant distinctiveness, and from a competitive practice within Judaism which sought to outdo other Jews in the degree and quality of its Torah-keeping.”54 In other words, Paul reacted against Jewish attempts to use the law to exclude Gentiles and exalt their own status as God’s people. When Paul’s criticism of the law is understood in terms of its “boundary-defining role, that is, as separating Jew from Gentile,” it becomes apparent that his doctrine of justification served “as Paul’s attempt to explain why and how Gentiles are accepted by God and consequently should be accepted also by their Jewish fellow believers.”55 Paul’s sharp attacks on the works of the law, then, were not attacks on good works done to attain righteousness before God, as Protestant exegesis traditionally contends. Contemporary Jewish theology did not teach this anyway, as Sanders had shown. The phrase the works of the law came to have a negative sense in Paul as that by which Israel protected its “privileged status and restricted prerogative.”56 Particularly important among these works of the law were things such as circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and clean/unclean distinctions, which most clearly distinguished Jews from Gentiles.57 Hence, the works against which

  1. Ibid., 344.
  2. Ibid., 345; see also 367 in regard to Rom 4:4–5.
  3. Ibid., 350.
  4. Ibid., 353–54.
  5. Ibid., 355.
  6. Ibid., 356.


Paul warns were Israel’s misunderstanding of its law: using the law to distinguish Jew from Gentile, forcing Gentile Christians to adopt Jewish distinctives, and failing to appreciate God’s promise to bless the nations.58

Toward the end of his section on justification in Paul, Dunn brings his various lines of analysis together and presents his conclusions on the subject. Some of the things he says are, taken by themselves, consistent with the Reformation’s understanding of justification. But, as Dunn himself has already made clear, he thinks that Paul had something else in mind, and his conclusions are certainly different in important respects from the Reformation’s. Perhaps Dunn’s most thorough summary of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith is this:

It was a profound conception of the relation between God and humankind—a relation of utter dependence, of unconditional trust. Human dependence on divine grace had to be unqualified or else it was not Abraham’s faith, the faith through which God could work his own work. That was why Paul was so fiercely hostile to the qualification which he saw confronting him all the time in any attempt to insist on works of the law as a necessary accompaniment of or addition to faith. God would not justify, could not sustain in relationship with him, those who did not rely wholly on him. Justification was by faith, by faith alone.59

The emphasis on the importance of unconditional trust and utter dependence on grace in Paul’s view of justification is of course familiar to those accustomed to Reformation teaching. Yet Dunn’s divergence from the Reformation is evident here not only in his speaking of justification as the sustaining of a relationship with God, but also—and even more striking—in his complete removal of the work of Christ, in his active or passive obedience, from this description of justification. This is perhaps what one would expect from a writer who claims that Paul’s conception of individual salvation was a restatement of his pre-Christian, Jewish religion, yet the absence of

  1. Ibid., 366.
  2. Ibid., 379.


Christ and his atoning work as the object of faith and the source of grace is remarkable.

Further on, Dunn speaks of justification in Paul as “acceptance by God.” Though ambiguous, such a notion is not necessarily at odds with Reformation teaching. Dunn, however, again separates himself from traditional Protestant doctrine by recalling his previous claims about the righteousness of God. He derides the “Greek” (read Reformation) understanding of God’s righteousness as a law-court metaphor implying “abuse of legal process or a legal fiction.” Acceptance by God in justification is not God judicially treating the ungodly as if they were innocent, for in the courtroom there is no place for forgiveness. Instead, along “Hebrew” lines, God graciously decides to continue the relationship that the other covenant partner has breached. In other words, God simply forgives, without the need for justice to be satisfied.60 To summarize Dunn’s conclusions, then, justification in Paul is not a once-for-all completed act, is not ultimately a judicial/forensic concept, and is not based upon the imputation of Christ’s obedience.

N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright must be credited with presenting the new perspective on Paul to a wider, popular audience. He has gained a great deal of credibility among evangelicals, much of which can certainly be attributed to his winsome defense of things such as the historical character of Christ’s resurrection.61 In addition, though Wright agrees with much of Dunn’s case described above, he attempts to state his view of Paul on justification in a way that appears mostly consistent with, if more developed than, the Reformation’s view. In fact, he claims that his view offers all the advantages and basic tenets of the Reformation’s doctrine of justification with the added benefit of understanding Paul’s own words much more accurately.62 If true, Wright’s version of the new perspective on Paul is understandably attractive to his evangeli-

  1. Ibid., 385–86.
  2. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
  3. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 113.


cal admirers; unfortunately, his differences with the Reformation are considerably more substantive than he sometimes suggests.

Like Dunn, Wright wishes to move beyond Sanders and modify his claims, but he states that he regards Sanders’s “basic point as established.”63 The Judaism of Paul’s day was not about salvation by works-righteousness, and Saul the Pharisee was no proto-Pelagian worried about getting into heaven by his own efforts. Saul “was not interested in a timeless system of salvation” but above all “wanted God to redeem Israel.”64 Wright claims that Saul the Pharisee, like many other contemporary Jews, believed that Israel was still in a state of exile and that a great day was coming in which God would bring Israel’s story to a conclusion by defeating evil and vindicating Israel as the people of God.65 This hope included the expectation that God would save the entire world—that was his covenant promise. In this context, Wright explains, justification “describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant on the one hand (Israel is God’s people) and the law court on the other (God’s final judgment will be like a great law-court scene, with Israel winning the case).”66

This background illumines Wright’s view of Saul’s conversion. Saul, of course, was not converted to a different way of attaining personal salvation. Instead, when he saw the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, he concluded that God had already done for Jesus what he had thought God was going to do for Israel at the end of history. He had vindicated Jesus after his sufferings rather than Israel after its suffering. This meant that resurrection had occurred and that the age to come had arrived, and thus the converted Paul recognized that the time of the Gentile harvest was now.67 The Gentile mission upon which Paul then embarked is a very important context for understanding his doctrine of justification. As Wright explains, however, justification was not the focus of the evangelistic message

  1. Ibid., 20; see also 114.
  2. Ibid., 32.
  3. Ibid., 30–31. On this point, see also the exposition in N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chap. 7.
  4. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 33 (emphasis original).
  5. Ibid., 36–37, 82.


that Paul would have announced in the streets of pagan cities. Rather, justification “was the thing his converts most needed to know in order to be assured that they really were part of God’s people.”68

What sort of concept was justification, then, if it was not the gospel message that Paul proclaimed to pagans?69 Wright makes clear that Paul did not mean by justification the imputation of righteousness, as taught by the Reformation. He emphasizes, with Dunn, that the phrase the righteousness of God had an obvious meaning: “God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant.”70 In the language of the courtroom, righteousness means different things for the judge and for the defendant, and it is not an object that can be transferred in any way to the defendant from the judge. Though the justified, in Paul’s mind, attain the status of righteous, their righteousness is not God the judge’s own righteousness. This, Wright sniffs, is “a category mistake” and “makes no sense at all.”71 Hence, the righteousness of God is God’s own righteousness, by which he declares the believer to be righteous.72 Wright concludes: “If we leave the notion of ‘righteousness’ as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past, this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship.”73

After taking this shot at his characterization of the Reformation view of justification, Wright reassures his Reformation-sympathizing reader almost immediately thereafter by a cleverly worded piece of reasoning. He says that the popular, common account of justification, which is rooted in the disputes between Augustine and Pelagius and between Luther and Erasmus, is “not entirely misleading.” Yet he warns that beginning with the common view will cause one to lose sight of the real Pauline gospel; beginning with his own rediscovery of Paul’s gospel, however, allows one to have both the cake and its eating: “If you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in

  1. Ibid., 94 (emphasis added).
  2. Ibid., 40–46.
  3. Ibid., 96.
  4. Ibid., 97–99.
  5. Ibid., 107. 73. Ibid., 110.


all its glory thrown in as well.”74 Justification has been used since Augustine as an antidote against Pelagian works-righteousness, yet reading Romans as if it answers the question of how people become Christians has perverted that epistle for hundreds of years.75 In a very important description of Paul’s true doctrine of justification, Wright redefines it as an ecclesiological category:

“Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about “getting in,” or indeed about “staying in,” as about “how you could tell who was in.” In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.76

After discussing several Pauline texts relevant to this discussion, Wright offers a helpful summary of his position, specifically in regard to Romans 3:

Within this context, “justification,” as seen in 3:24–26, means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family; which of course means that their sins are forgiven, since that was the purpose of the covenant. They are given the status of being “righteous” in the metaphorical law court. When this is cashed out in terms of the underlying covenantal theme, it means that they are declared, in the present, to be what they will be seen to be in the future, namely the true people of God. Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly . . . on the basis of the entire life. And in making this declaration . . . , God himself is in the right, in that he has been faithful to the covenant; he has dealt with sin, and upheld the helpless; and in the crucified Christ he has done so impartially. The gospel—not “justification by faith,” but the message

  1. Ibid., 113.
  2. Ibid., 116–17. See also Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 243.
  3. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 119.


about Jesus—thus reveals the righteousness, that is, the covenant faithfulness, of God.77

For Wright, then, justification involves the forgiveness of sins; that is an “of course.” But justification is based upon “the entire life.” It does not concern how one becomes right with God, nor is it grounded in the imputed obedience of Jesus Christ or in anything that can rightly be called a theology of the atonement. Whatever kind things Wright occasionally says about the Reformation understanding of justification, his own view of Paul’s view is something quite different.

Justification among Reformed Revisionists

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the contemporary attack upon the doctrine of justification is that part of the assault has come from people associated with confessional Reformed Christianity. That those outside the Reformed fold would critique the Reformation doctrine of justification is not stunning, even when their provenance is the relatively friendly field of biblical studies. But that Reformed churchmen and theologians would both implicitly and explicitly attack the Reformation doctrine of justification—sometimes even in the name of Reformed theology itself—is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that many in confessional Reformed circles have expressed support for their positions.

Norman Shepherd

Controversies have surrounded Norman Shepherd’s teaching on salvation for more than thirty years. While teaching systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), Shepherd proposed in a 1974 paper to the faculty that justification was by faith and works. Though he modified his language somewhat in response to criticism, this touched off a long controversy centering around the Westminster board and faculty that finally culminated in 1981 with

  1. Ibid., 129.


Shepherd’s dismissal from his post.78 Questions about Shepherd’s doctrine of justification lay smoldering for many years, but seem to have been reignited by the 2000 publication of his Call of Grace as well as other writing and lecturing that he has done since his retirement from pastoral ministry.79 Though Shepherd, in his book and elsewhere, sets out on the laudable task of combating the twin evils of legalism and antinomianism, his solution involves both ambiguous teaching on justification and outright conflict with the biblical doctrine as understood by the Reformation.80

First, Shepherd’s teaching denies, or at least redefines, the idea that justification is by faith alone. In his book, Shepherd repeatedly stresses that justifying faith is an active, living, obedient faith. Given the context of debates over justification, such language is inherently ambiguous. By obedient faith does he mean a faith that always produces obedience as its fruit, as Reformation theology teaches? Several lines of evidence, some implicit and others more explicit, attest that Shepherd has something else in mind, a sort of faith/obedience cocktail that differs substantially from Reformed teaching on justifying faith and the obedience that flows from it. In short, whereas Reformed theology teaches that faith alone, defined as an extraspective trust in Christ and his atoning work, justifies and that obedience, which is never to be confused with faith itself, inevitably flows from justifying faith, Shepherd intentionally blurs the distinction between faith and works and hence makes it impossible to speak of faith as the only instrument of justification in any traditional sense.

  1. For an account of the Shepherd affair, see O. Palmer Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2003). See 74–82 for discussion of the document drawn up by the Westminster Board explaining its dismissal of Shepherd: “Reasons and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd Approved by the Executive Committee of the Board.”
  2. Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000); idem, “Justification by Faith Alone,” Reformation and Revival 11 (2002): 75–90. An earlier expression of his views on the subject can be found in “The Grace of Justification” (unpublished paper, 1979).
  3. I made several of the following points in David VanDrunen, “Justification by Faith in the Theology of Norman Shepherd,” Katekomen 14.1 (2002): 23–26. Other reviews of Shepherd’s work also make similar points; see especially the thorough review by Cornelis P. Venema in Mid-America Journal of Theology 13 (2002): 232–48.


Some statements in Shepherd’s earlier writings seem amenable to no other interpretation. He writes, for example, that faith “yields obedience to the commands of Christ” and “forsakes sin and ungodliness” and that the forsaking of sin and rebellion is “an act of faith.”81 Faith is not distinguished from obedience here, but identified with it. Furthermore, “a living and active faith is the fruit of the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.”82 Whereas the Reformation doctrine has always taught that sanctification is a fruit of justifying faith, here Shepherd says just the opposite—that faith is the fruit of sanctification.

In a recent article Shepherd quite explicitly claims the Westminster Standards for his cause, making much of their never using the exact phrase justification by faith alone. He draws a highly questionable divide between Lutherans and Reformed in that the former see all good works as the fruit of faith and the latter do not. He seems to rely here upon the fallacious reasoning that because faith never stands alone, unaccompanied by good works (as the Reformed tradition has taught), therefore good works cannot be (simply) the fruit of faith.83 Part of Shepherd’s agenda in making this claim becomes evident later: justifying faith is not the fount from which all sanctifying blessings flow. For example, Shepherd reasons that because regeneration is the beginning of sanctification, hence saving faith (which is subsequent to regeneration) is produced by sanctification and, therefore, sanctification begins prior to justification.84 For present purposes, Shepherd’s attempt to dismantle the idea of justification by faith alone (and to reinterpret the Westminster Standards) results not only in a denial that good works are to be seen entirely as the fruits of justifying faith but also in the clear affirmation that sanctification actually precedes justification in the application of salvation to the Christian.

  1. Shepherd, “Grace of Justification,” 16, 17, 20.
  2. Ibid., 15.
  3. Shepherd, “Justification by Faith Alone,” 79–81. I call his reasoning fallacious because the mere fact that faith never exists temporally apart from good works does not mean that faith is not the fount of good works causally.
  4. Ibid., 82–83. Along similar lines is Shepherd’s claim shortly thereafter that in the Westminster Standards repentance is not simply the fruit and evidence of pardon, but necessary for it, and hence that repentance is “absolutely necessary for” and preached “with a view to” justification (84–85).


Shepherd denies not only the Reformed teaching on the instrument of justification but also its view of the ground of justification, the obedience of Christ imputed to believers. In recent lectures Shepherd becomes more explicit about his rejection of the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience,85 but the source of such belief can certainly be traced back to his writings. Shepherd’s disagreement with this crucial aspect of Reformed teaching on justification seems to stem at least in large part from his attempt to rid Reformed theology completely of the idea of merit. He recognizes that the Reformation rejected the prevalent Roman Catholic view of merit, involving as it did the Christian’s efforts to earn his own justification, but Shepherd claims that the Reformation did not go far enough. He sees lingering ideas of merit in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, in which Adam would have gained eschatological life on the basis of his obedience. Rejecting this idea, Shepherd claims that “God never required his image bearers to earn eternal life by the merit of their good works.”86

It is not difficult to see how such a view, if taken seriously, makes belief in Christ’s active, imputed obedience impossible. If image bearers do not merit anything before God, then the true image bearer, Christ, did not merit anything before God, and his perfect obedience can hardly be reckoned ours as the basis for our justification. What is the point of Christ’s obedience then, if it is not to merit the eternal life that we sinners are unable to merit for ourselves? Shepherd turns, at least in part, to the notion of Christ as our great example: “All of this is made possible through the covenantal righteousness of Jesus Christ. His was a living, active, and obedient faith that took him all

  1. For example, in his 2003 lectures for the Southern California Center for Christian Studies, Shepherd argues that early Reformed theology, exemplified in the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, equated justification solely with forgiveness and, therefore, saw justification grounded only in Christ’s passive obedience (sacrificial death) and not on his active obedience (law keeping). Shepherd makes clear that he believes this is the biblical position. These lectures were subsequently published as “Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology” and “Justification by Works in Reformed Theology,” in Backbone of the Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective (ed. P. Andrew Sandlin; Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media, 2004), 85–120. This work came into my hands too late to allow more specific interaction with the content of these essays.
  2. Shepherd, “Justification by Faith Alone,” 88; see also idem, Call of Grace, 25–41, in which Shepherd mercilessly misrepresents and caricatures much traditional Reformed teaching on the subject of works in the Mosaic covenant.


the way to the cross. This faith was credited to him as righteousness. . . . But just as Jesus was faithful in order to guarantee the blessing, so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing.”87 As Christ was covenantally faithful unto his justification, so we are called to be covenantally faithful unto our justification. But his obedience is not credited to us as the ground of justification.

The Federal Vision

The self-styled federal vision is a movement of sorts that presents another challenge to the Reformed doctrine of justification from the inside. Also referred to as the “Auburn Avenue” theology, after the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana, that has hosted annual conferences promoting this line of thought, the federal vision is loosely associated with many people whose views are not entirely compatible. Nevertheless, the theology of federal-vision advocates seems to congeal around certain common ideas. Principally, the federal vision emphasizes a revamped covenant theology stressing the objectivity of the promises given to the church, especially in its sacraments. Much attention revolves around understanding election, regeneration, and other salvific blessings through membership in the church as visible covenant community.88 Though justification per se is not its chief concern, the federal vision does reconfigure the traditional Reformed teaching on this doctrine. Little in the federal vision’s handling of justification has not already been seen in other figures surveyed in this essay, particularly in regard to the new perspective on Paul and Shepherd, but a brief account of its justification theology is in order.

First, proponents of the federal vision generally follow the trajectory of the new perspective on Paul, especially in the form presented by Wright, though their debt to him is not always acknowledged. Steve Schlissel, for example, follows the new perspective on Paul extensively,

  1. Shepherd, Call of Grace, 19 (emphasis original).
  2. For a summary of the convictions of the federal vision by one of its most vocal advocates, see Douglas Wilson, “Union with Christ: An Overview of the Federal Vision,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (ed. E. Calvin Beisner; Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 1–8.


but fails to make a single reference acknowledging it. He states that the doctrine of justification by faith was already present in Genesis and was presupposed by Paul, but was not what Paul had in mind in Galatians or Romans. Instead, he was concerned that Gentiles as well as Jews were being saved.89 Schlissel goes on to claim that Paul presented no new ordo salutis—in fact, he claims that the ordo salutis itself is a more recent, manufactured problem that has helped to make us racists—and that the inclusion of the Gentiles is the major issue of the New Testament.90 He explains: “Legal justification, far from being ‘the heart of the gospel,’ let alone identical with it, is hardly ever in view when Paul speaks of justification.”91 Rich Lusk cites and defends many of the sentiments of the new perspective on Paul. He speaks of Luther’s misreading of Paul’s critique of the law, powered by his “infamous” law-grace antithesis, which was carried on in Reformed Scholasticism.92 In affirming the new perspective on Paul’s views on the law, the problem with the Judaizers, and other issues, Lusk adopts Wright’s claim, analyzed above, that the new perspective on Paul does not really deny the Reformation’s teaching on justification, but gives a more exegetically nuanced description of Paul’s thought.93

As was the case with Wright above, however, claims of basic harmony with Reformation concerns sit uneasily with explicit denials and even ridicule of such chief aspects of Reformation doctrine as the imputed righteousness of Christ. Lusk, speaking as a representative of the federal vision, joins his mentors in the new perspective on Paul in harsh critique of this idea.94 Lusk’s difficulties with imputed

  1. Steve M. Schlissel, “A New Way of Seeing?” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (ed. E. Calvin Beisner; Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 22, 25.
  2. Ibid., 32–36.
  3. Ibid., 33. Similar claims are also made in Steve Schlissel, “Justification and the Gentiles,” in The Federal Vision (ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner; Monroe, LA: Athanasius, 2004), 237–61.
  4. Rich Lusk, “A Response to ‘Covenant and Salvation,’” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (ed. E. Calvin Beisner; Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 130.
  5. Ibid., 130–36.
  6. The doctrines of active obedience and imputed righteousness also come under attack by federal-vision advocate James B. Jordan in “Merit versus Maturity: What Did Jesus Do for Us?” in The Federal Vision (ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner; Monroe, LA: Athanasius, 2004), 151–200, esp. 192–95.


righteousness seem to originate in a similar locale as Shepherd’s. Like Shepherd, Lusk pummels the idea of merit and the doctrine of the covenant of works.95 This in turn leads him, naturally, to reject the notion that Christ came to fulfill the broken covenant of works for our sake.96 Lusk deems “the so-called ‘active obedience’ of Christ”97 worthy not only of rejection, but also of outright mockery:

It ends up looking something like this: In Genesis 1–2, God constructed Pelagian machinery for man to earn his way to blessing. Adam rendered himself incapable of operating that machinery when he sinned. But now God sends his Son into the world as One who can work the machinery flawlessly. In other words, Jesus is the successful Pelagian, the One Guy in the history of the world who succeeded in pulling off the works righteousness plan.98

Was Jesus’s perfect obedience at all important, then? Lusk affirms that it was, but only in the sense that Jesus’s perfection allowed him to be a spotless sacrifice for sin—in other words, simply to make his passive obedience possible.99 Though advocates of the federal vision at times present their views as a recapturing of genuine Reformed thought,100 such teaching on justification can hardly be received as anything but direct assault on traditional Reformation doctrine.101

  1. Lusk, “Response to ‘Covenant and Salvation,’” 118–26.
  2. Ibid., 137.
  3. Ibid., 139–40.
  4. Ibid., 137.
  5. Ibid., 140.
  6. For example, on Lutherans versus the Reformed see Schlissel, “New Way of Seeing?” 23–24; and on Calvin see Lusk, “Response to ‘Covenant and Salvation,’” 131, 143–44.
  7. Another recent treatment of justification by a federal-vision proponent is Peter J. Leithart, “‘Judge Me, O God’: Biblical Perspectives on Justification,” in The Federal Vision (ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner; Monroe, LA: Athanasius, 2004), 203–35. Leithart says that “as far as it goes, the Protestant doctrine is correct.” However, he also believes that “the Reformation doctrine of justification has illegitimately narrowed and to some extent distorted the biblical doctrine” (209). He bases this claim on the idea that the Reformation doctrine relies solely on the forensic metaphor used to describe justification in Scripture and not also on other biblical metaphors pertaining to justification. While Leithart is certainly not wrong to recognize the importance of metaphor for human thought and speech, it may well be wondered whether Scripture intends its forensic language about justification to be understood metaphorically. Biblical descriptions of God as judge or of justification as legal verdict are certainly analogical, but they are not therefore necessarily metaphorical.



Evidence from many different sources shows that the Reformed doctrine of justification is under attack in the present day. Some similarities among these different sources, of varying background, purpose, and sophistication, have already been noted. To help the reader synthesize this material, however, listing the ways in which most or all these various movements and authors agree in their approach to justification identifies common elements in the contemporary attack on the doctrine.

First, and perhaps most importantly, is a point emphasized above: none of the people and movements investigated includes the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in the doctrine of justification. Sometimes it is passed over in silence, as in the Joint Declaration and the Gift of Salvation; other times it is quite openly denied, as in the new perspective on Paul and the Reformed revisionists. Either way, all sides eliminate this crucial aspect of the Reformation’s doctrine.

A second element of commonality, not highlighted above but closely related to the first element, is the general sentiment among the various parties that emphasis upon the gracious character of salvation is enough to preserve orthodoxy. Perceiving this point requires a bit of reading between the lines. Nevertheless, all the parties surveyed here—the ecumenical statements, the new perspective on Paul, and the Reformed revisionists—emphasize the gracious character of salvation even while relativizing the importance of defining the instrument or ground of justification carefully. Though most of these parties wish to portray themselves as in harmony with Reformation teaching in one way or another, emphasis upon grace, while obviously important, is not sufficient to capture the heart of the Reformation’s concerns.

A third common element among these parties is a strong strain of historical revisionism. Among several examples, the ecumenical statements downplay the traditional significance of the Reformation-era condemnations of Protestants by Roman Catholics; the Finnish school reinterprets Luther; the new perspective on Paul emphasizes a new


understanding of first-century Palestinian Judaism; and the Reformed revisionists pit the Reformed against Lutherans on justification.

A fourth element, common at least to advocates of the new perspective on Paul and Reformed revisionists, which is perhaps another example of historical revisionism, is the frequent contrast of “Greek” and “Hebrew” thinking.102 This appears especially in regard to the concept of righteousness and is portrayed as a key to unlocking past misperceptions of Paul on justification.

A fifth common element, again evident at least in the new perspective on Paul and the Reformed revisionists, is a tendency to express allegiance to the Bible alone in a way that involves antipathy to confessional and systematic theology. Advocates of the new perspective on Paul, as the name of their movement suggests, emphasize their ability to read the Bible anew and rework hundreds of years of Pauline interpretation, much of it embedded in Protestant confessional statements. Perhaps even more explicitly, proponents of the federal vision repeatedly castigate systematic/dogmatic/Scholastic theology and defend their views by claiming that they simply repeat the language of the Bible.103 Ironically, neither Shepherd nor those associated with the federal vision have produced much detailed exegesis of biblical passages on justification but rely mostly on piling up proof-texts.

A sixth link between the disparate parties investigated here is the ecumenical interest that seems to drive much of the revision of the doctrine of justification. This obviously goes without saying in regard to the ecumenical discussions described above, but it is also evident among several others considered in this essay. Advocates of the new perspective on Paul attempt to transcend Reformation-era debates by their new readings of Paul and even to mend Jewish-Christian

  1. For example, Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle, 341; Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 95–99; Schlissel, “New Way of Seeing?” 20, 23–26; and Lusk, “Response to ‘Covenant and Salvation,’” 130, 147. For critique of such oversimplistic appeals, see James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 8–20. More recently, see Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism (ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 1.415–42.
  2. For example, Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 153; Wilson, “Union with Christ,” 4–6; Schlissel, “New Way of Seeing?” 20–22, 25; and Lusk, “Response to ‘Covenant and Salvation,’” 138, 145. As noted above, of course, Shepherd and federal-vision proponents do at times defend their conformity to the Reformed confessions.


relations.104 Shepherd himself suggests that his proposed covenantal reading of salvation offers the possibility of transcending the differences between Rome and the Reformation.105

The seventh point of commonality is not far removed from this ecumenical interest: concern about social and cultural issues in relation to justification. Gift of Salvation emerged out of earlier claims in Evangelicals and Catholics Together that alliance in the culture wars unites evangelicals and Roman Catholics in important ways. In general, the new perspective on Paul reconfigures justification around a social issue, Jew-Gentile relations, and Wright specifically makes justification an ecclesiological issue, a definition of who is a member of the covenant community. Schlissel, on behalf of the federal vision, strongly suggests that the culture wars and the perceived collapse of civilization is a much more important issue than—and one that might be overlooked because of—the kind of squabbles about justification described above.106

In conclusion, justification is indeed under attack. Whatever the persuasiveness of the views examined in this essay, an issue of such importance deserves careful attention and critical examination. And, if the traditional Reformed view of justification is sound, justification is worthy of a sturdy contemporary defense. Such is what the present book aims to provide.

  1. In addition to material already cited, see also Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle, 336–38.
  2. Shepherd, Call of Grace, 59.
  3. Schlissel, “New Way of Seeing?” 19–21, 35–36.



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    Post authored by:

  • David VanDrunen
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    Dr. VanDrunen, a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, began teaching at Westminster Seminary California in 2001. He was formerly a pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, IL, and has served on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Committee on Christian Education since 2005. He was the recipient of the Acton Institute’s Novak Award (2004), a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University (2009), a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology (2016–17), and Research Fellow at the Protestant Theological University in The Netherlands (2022).

    Dr. VanDrunen is the author or editor of thirteen books, including Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Zondervan Academic, 2020), named Book of the Year (2021) in Politics and Public Life by Christianity Today. His scholarly articles have appeared in many journals, including Journal of Reformed TheologyJournal of Law and Religion, and Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.

    More by David VanDrunen ›

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