Temporarily Ashamed to Be Reformed: Justification

In my doctor of divinity in puritan studies course, I wrote a paper on Justification in which I explored the relationship of works with Justification.

During this study I had a very disappointing experience with my Reformed brethren. I asked someone to whom I had (and still have) great respect and appreciation.

My question went something like this: the meaning of Justification in the bible is not univocal. It is generally accepted that James and Paul are using the word “justify” to refer to different realities, or at least different aspects of those realities.

I went on to say that the reformers were in a position where they wanted to lay out a specific articulation of a biblical word with a much wider and variegated meaning in its biblical context. So, when they say that man is justified by faith alone:

Do they mean that men are justified (in Paul’s sense of the word) by faith alone?
Do they mean that men are justified (in James’s sense of the word) by faith alone?
Do they mean that men are justified (as a comprehensive meaning) by faith alone?

#2 is blatantly absurd, see James 2:24. This does not mean that the doctrine of JBFA is wrong, it simply means that James is referring to a different kind of Justification; i.e. not the meaning that the Reformers assumed. This also means that #3 too is false. The way in which the Reformers used the word justify and justification, in order to work, had to assume a Pauline exclusivity.

If the goal was to teach a doctrine of Justification that was more comprehensive, and aimed at capturing the significance of the primary senses of Justification in the primary biblical contexts, then the phrase “justified by faith alone” I suggested, was very unwise.

The bible uses the word justify in a context where it is explicitly stated that men are not only justified by faith, but justified by works also. When elders and leaders lay out parameters of the meaning of a biblical word, they should not define the word in ways that flatly contradicts the way in which the word is used in other contexts, even though the word is used in different contexts with a different meaning.

For example: Though there is a sense in which God is not one, he is three, it would still be immature and unwise to say “God is not one.” This due obviously to the Scripture that does say God is one. You would have to add on to the phrase “person;” God is not one person, but three persons.

In reverse, and in the same sense, the word “alone” should not be added to justification in such exclusive and absolute terms. “Justification,” biblically, is not by faith alone. Now, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a narrow sense in which Justification is by faith alone; but that narrow sense doesn’t account for the whole.

Which leads to two possibilities: 1. Instead of removing the word “alone,” replace the word justification with what the Reformers meant by Justification. They could have said, “a person is declared righteous and simultaneously initiated into a relationship with God by faith alone in Christ alone.” 2. Keep the word Justification, but do so with respect to the wide range of biblical meanings, and so drop problem some words like “alone,” that suggest that the word “justify” can only mean one of its more nuanced possibilities.

When asking the thoughts of professors, and people that the professors pointed me to: I was basically told a lot of things, none of which came close to approximating a thoughtful answer that honestly engaged with my question. I was even told to find a new professor, because my views were too errant. A Rare day for me; for the first time I felt ashamed to be Reformed.

Reformed I am nonetheless.

On the subject of James, i found a wonderful article that treats James in a very thoughtful and enlightening way:

Remember the verses before the justification passage in James says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (NASB 2:12-13). This later phrase, katakauca◊tai e¶leoß kri÷sewß, “yet mercy triumphs over judgment” in the middle voice, is literally, “boasts against.”47 Perhaps a better sense is that “mercy prevails in judgment.” James calls believers to always temper judgments with mercy (v 13), not unlike Matthew 7.48 In effect,
James says mercy fulfills the law.49 Gathercole also agrees. “An eschatological perspective on the role of works might also clarify the position with regard to the soteriology of James 2 . . . Here the scene is eschatological judgment, as it frequently is in James (cf. Also 3:1, 6; 4:12; 5:17).”50

James is speaking of the eschatological judgment and salvation in the last day. Such themes are clear in the post-exillic prophecies cited above. Leon Morris observes in agreement with Douglas Moo that, “Paul uses justification of the initial step of becoming a Christian, James, like Matthew and others, uses it of final justification, the kind of justification we will see on Judgment Day.”52

James moves in his flow of thought from judgment to justification, just as does Paul (Rom. 2:13, then 3:20, etc.). James speaks of justification, not in some lesser sense than Paul. Justification is parallel to “saving” — “Can that faith save him?” (2:14). Surely James is emphatic that faith cannot be without obedience. He is just as emphatic that justification cannot be without works. But I hasten to add, this is “justification” not in the sense of initial, forensic declaration, but in the eschatological sense of “who is in” (cf Wright above). A living faith cannot exist without an expression of obedience to the royal law of love. Faith with “works” [sunerge,w James 2:22] is clear in the cases of Abraham/Rahab. But it is not self-righteousness or self-merit. Salvation is for prostitutes who trust God and for polytheistic pagans like the uncircumcised Abram. In both cases God is able to “justify the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). James reproves people who claim to believe, but are disobedient, precisely because James’ view of justification is “who is in” not “how one gets in” and it is in reference to the eschatological justification/judgment event. Would Paul have said anything different? No. James refers to the same event as does Paul. Paul writes “the doers [poihtai.] of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). James writes, “But be doers
[poihtai.] of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
[Gregg Strawbridge]


Acts 19

In Acts 19, Paul comes in contact with people and he asks them if they have received the Spirit. They respond “No.” Then he asked, “3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, Into John’s baptism.”

What is crucial to understand is the organic period after the time of the crucifixion but before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. To clarify an important thing to keep in mind: Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. The same is true for Moses, he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, and so on to Joshua and all of the saved of the OT; they were saved in terms of an Old covenant salvaiton: their sins were forgiven, they had favor with God, they were accepted by God. Faith, however, is not stagnant or passive, it does not “do nothing.” It is active, and belief in God was expressed in submission to God’s Law, and obedience to it. When the law was broken, belief in God’s promises led to obedience to other aspects of the law such as sacrifices.

So that, when you get to Acts 2, or Acts 19, many of the people were saved, with an old covenant salvation. The coming of Christ however is ushering in a new era, a new covenant, and is therefore bringing to a close the old covenant. At this transitionary period, God has people who were truly his saved people, who were still living under the old covenant salvation. God must deliver them into the new covenant, before totally destroying the old. Jesus in Matt. 24, actually prophesies of the destruction of the temple, which was the epicenter of this covenant. In A.D. 70, God officially ends that covenant.

So, when Peter preaches the sermon in Acts 2, the people there come to believe in Jesus, and God speaks an unmistakable miraculous heavenly “AMEN” by confirming the preaching, and rightness of the new covenant inaugurated by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He does it by pouring out his Spirit in the manner that he promised he would during the last days. Contrary to Tim LaHaye and others, the last days began with Jesus according to Hebrews 1:1-2. The last days, when He would pour out his Spirit on all flesh; was officially initiated in Acts 2.

When we get to Acts 19, then, we have people who are Old covenant saved, but not new covenant saved. They too must be delivered from the Old covenant into the new era. Paul does this by laying on his hands, and God validates Paul’s message to authenticate the teachings of Paul as truly from God.

Now, people who read Acts 19 and wonder whether Salvation should transpire in every individual life, the way it did for these followers of John the Baptist, are missing something very important. When you read Acts’s account of the conversion for Paul for example, he went around killing Christians, and Christ met him on the road to Damacus, and there Paul was converted to Christianity. It would be wrong to assume, that if I go around killing Christians, that Christ too will meet me on a road similar to Damascus. Acts is more so telling us what happened at this crucial time in history, more than it is telling us what will continue to happen as a normative experience for future believers.

The miraculous events in Acts have more to do with the cataclysmic event of the coming of Jesus on the Old covenant than is usually recognized. The question is not about how individuals will experience salvaiton, but about the world changing events precipitated by the coming of Jesus. The coming of Jesus is a once for all, unrepeatable event than cannot take place again. So too the events in Acts, in many ways are unrepeatable events that are testifying to the inauguration of the new covenant. Never again will there be people who are Old covenant saved, who are later to become new covenant saved. This is a special time in history that will never be repeated. We must remember that God loved the law of Moses, and he instituted it himself. Now in Christ he is ushering in a new covenant that is to fulfill and thus remove that covenant. The people who were Old covenant saved, didn’t suddenly become unsaved by jesus’s coming and work on the cross; they were people that MUST transition into the New covenant. For that to happen, God validated the preaching of the apostles to insure that this happened; and he validated that message with His Spirit.

A significant point of the new covenant being that all believers in Christ would be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, including both Jews and Gentiles. You can see this clearly in Acts 10 where the spirit falls on gentile god-fearers in just the same way as it did on Jews (which perplexed Peter’s crew). The very thing that the new covenant was NOT saying was that there would be some who are in the new covenant who had the Spirit and others who didn’t have the Spirit; in fact the point of the new covenant is the very opposite. The point was that ALL believers would receive the Spirit.

Jesus said to some people that John the Baptist was the greatest man born of a woman under the Old covenant. Then he says these astounding words, that nevertheless, the least in the kingdom of God that he was inaugurating would be greater than John the Baptist. Why is this so? Because those of the kingdom of jesus were going to receive the Spirit of the resurrected Messiah. Jesus said that he must depart so that the Spirit would come. And come it did!

The same can be illustrated with Moses. He was judging all of Israel, and his father in law Jethro said to Moses, this is not good for you Moses you need to install some ‘helpers.’ Moses took the advice, and later the Spirit came upon 120(I think), and Joshua was jealous for Moses. Moses responded to Joshua, saying “I would that God poured out his Spirit on all of his people as he has with me.

Moses would have rejoiced to see the new covenant where God DID pour out his Spirit on all of his people. The problem was that many of God’s people at the time of Acts were still under the old covenant, and were therefore not enjoying what Christ came to inaugurate.

So, the event of Acts 19 has more to do with the engathering of all of the Old covenant believers into the new covenant, than it does with the way in which all believers in the new testament will receive the spirit. It has more to do with jesus, and his impact on the Law, and the world, than it does with the sequence of events that each believer will experience.