“Justification: Five Views:” The Traditional Reformed View @ivpacademic

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Michael Horton is nothing if not honest. In the very first paragraph of his defense of the Traditional Reformed View of justification, Horton tells the reader that his goal “is not simply to repeat relevant paragraphs in our confessions and catechisms,” (although he does do that), but to argue that their view (italics mine) of justification is even more firmly established by recent investigations.” In other words, what Horton intends to do is not primarily investigate the exegetical evidence for the traditional Reformed review, but to defend the views of Luther and Calvin.

Horton is at his best at the beginning of the essay when he is simply stating his case. There is no question in the reader’s mind that Horton defines justification as a primarily forensic (legal) transaction in which a verdict “declares sinners to be righteous even while they remain inherently unrighteous.” This righteousness, according to Horton, is imputed to the sinner solely on the basis of Christ’s obedience and is achieved through faith alone. In no way, according to Horton, does the believer actually become righteous. Justification is a change in status, not nature.

The problem is that while Horton provides ample scriptural evidence for his views, his commitment seems to be less to what Paul said than to what the “magisterial Reformers” agreed upon. In other words, Luther said it. I believe it. That settles it. And true to his Reformer’s heritage, Horton’s first priority is to make sure that the reader understands how his view of justification differs from Roman Catholicism.

I admit to being of two minds about Horton’s obsession with Catholicism. Since my familiarity with it is limited, I appreciate Horton’s commitment to making sure that I understand the difference between the two theologies. (Reformers consider justification distinct from sanctification, while Catholicism regards justification and sanctification as stages in the single process of becoming “actually and intrinsically righteous.”)  On the other hand, Horton’s fixation on Roman Catholicism has an almost anachronistic quality, especially when he quotes at length from the 16th century Council of Trent to prove that Catholicism still includes works as an essential element of justification.

For all its weaknesses, however, Horton’s essay succeeds in defining what most evangelicals mean when they talk about justification, in part because it brings out the best in Michael Bird and James D.G. Dunn. Both Bird and Dunn agree with Horton that justification is primarily a forensic term in which the believer’s status changes from guilty to not guilty. Bird also reconfirms Horton’s assertion that justification is “generally distinct” from sanctification, but adds that there are a few scriptural examples “where the divide between justification and sanctification gets a little foggy.”

The four responses to Horton’s essay are somewhat uneven. Bird and Dunn both do an admirable job of critiquing Horton’s theology in a clear, organized manner. (I happen to think that organization is a severely under-rated virtue when it comes to academic writing.) Karkkainen and O’Collins are less helpful, but I’m holding off my assessment until I read their position papers.

One of the highlights of the four responses to Horton’s essay is Dunn’s claim that:

“pushing all of Paul’s thought through the narrow gauge of a strict forensic reading of justification strips off the diversity of images and metaphors on which Paul draws to expand his Gospel…I am really quite alarmed at Horton’s unwillingness to take seriously Paul’s understanding of final judgment, to give his exhortations and warnings the seriousness that Paul evidently intended.

This is, I think, is a great example of how discussions about something as seemingly esoteric as justification can impact the practicalities of day-to-day faith. While Horton tries to make the case that the Traditional Reformed View “gives rise to a spontaneous embrace of the very law that once condemned us,” experience has shown that a minimalist version of this very same view can easily turn into a cocky confidence in salvation that does nothing to kick-start the transformation process. Excluding Paul’s “exhortations and warnings” about falling away from our conversations about  justification leads to—at best—a tragically shallow understanding of how we live out our faith

One final note: The fact that I don’t find Horton’s argument compelling does not negate the value of what he has done in contributing to this book. I love multi-view books precisely because they include dissenting opinions. When I’m thinking through a sticky theological question like justification, I can pull just one book down off the shelf, read through the various positions, and assess for myself which one seems to make the most sense. And I can imagine all the scholars wearing tweed.

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38 Replies to ““Justification: Five Views:” The Traditional Reformed View @ivpacademic”

  1. Hi Leslie. I wrote a post a while back when I was blogging through the book, Justification and Variegated Nomism. An essay in that book by Mark Seifrid argued that the view that justification was solely forensic went back to Melancthon, not Luther, and that Luther believed that justification included both the declaration that the believer was righteous and God beginning the process of making him righteous. Here’s the post I wrote on that: http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/2011/12/luther-vs-melanchthon-on-justification.html

    I don’t know who’s right or wrong on what Luther believed.

    1. James,

      I always appreciate it when someone reads a scholarly book and is honest enough to say “I’m confused.” Usually, what that means is that the person who wrote the book either isn’t a very good writer or doesn’t understand the topic well enough to describe it clearly.

      I’m not a Reformation scholar so I can’t really question Horton’s description of Luther’s theology; I just have to trust him. There may be questions in academic circles regarding the nuance of Luther’s view, but I don’t recall Horton mentioning any.

      It would be interesting, however, if the position that Horton is defending turned out to be different than what Luther himself thought. Talk about confusing!

      If you find out anything more about it, let me know. Thanks for commenting.

  2. You can’t be unless you are.

    The Bible says: “1Co 6:11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”

    All these are in the past tense, including “justified.” Take that in contrast to what the apostle said in the previous verse:

    “1Co 6:9-10 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? “… fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, (10) Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

    Then he says in verse 11: “And such were some of you…”

    It seems that justification in the eyes of God is a ‘fact’ a ‘done deal,’ the believer then must believe he’s JUSTIFIED in order to BE. This is Grace, and that Grace teaches our conscience:

    “Tit 2:11-12 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, (12) Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world”

    Imagine… A criminal is justified, impossible to imagine, but that is the effect of the Lord’s atonement, and he walks out of the court knowing that someone else took his guilt and paid his debt, but yet he is now Just. Do you think he will live differently or would he try to become better in light of his new status…? He must believe he is in order to be.

        1. The authors are somewhat intertwined with the subject.

          Justification, as the book details, is a multifaceted object. I now that given recent scholarship, the conversation of what merits play or do not play, of what a new people play, and where the eschaton fits in at is on the rise.

          The Reformed Doctrines are not under attacked, but being called into question as they once called Rome’s doctrines into question.

          For me, and I’m not speaking for Leslie, I suspect that my views will fall somewhere between the NPP and the Roman Catholic position, although deification must play a part.

          1. I try to go back to Scripture regardless of positions or denominational dogmas. For one must “become ignorant to become wise” (1Co 3:18)
            Besides, Scripture is the authority and the last word on doctrines.
            Justification must be the ‘condition,’ ‘awareness’ and Sanctification the result, fruit (Rom 6:22 “But NOW that you have BEEN set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the FRUIT you get leads to SANCTIFICATION and its end, eternal life.”)
            CONDITION: Rom 5:1 Therefore, since we have BEEN JUSTIFIED by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
            RESULT: 1Ts 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you ABSTAIN from sexual immorality.
            Justification then is a State of Mind and of Being, and Sanctification the fruit, the result, the attitude, behavior.

          2. Leo, scripture is primary but in the end, we simply can’t read scripture without good scholarship. Good scholarship leads us to seek to understand better what justification means. Is it then or is it in the future? Etc…

  3. Hi Joel, did you read the verses. They speak for themselves. Justification is a Standing before God. In order to be before Him one must be Justified by faith in Jesus. That was the issue in Luc 18:11-14.
    Again, is a CONDITION a STATE OF BEING RIGHT before God. SANCTIFICATION is the FRUIT, the RESULT, a life separated, dedicated to righteousness Rom 6:19.
    If we need a scholarship then what would be of those that don’t have it?

    1. I am unsure as to your last sentence.

      Is it a state? I don’t think so. As the authors, and indeed, other theologians have demonstrated, simply quoting verses only continues to prove one’s own position. Further, I would contend that a reexamination of faith of or faith in, going with the former. The translation and context pay a key role in understanding Scripture.

      What justifies? What does justification actually mean? All questions which need to be answered.

  4. What is Justification? The STATE of not being CONDEMNED. (Rom 5:18)

    What justifies? The righteousness of one: Jesus Chtist. (Rom 5:18)

    I’m not trying to be controversial, but why make something so simple so difficult. Salvation is practical, it has to be! One only needs to ask oneself: am I condemned? If the answer is no…, because I have believed in His Atonement…, then JUSTIFICATION IS A CONDITION (a state of being)

    1. Leo, the issue is… is that you are reading it with your own (Reformed) lens.

      Justification, many would argue, is not merely a condition, but an action of God or a imputation of God, etc…

      The asking and the answering you suggest doesn’t carry well because many do not feel condemned in the things that they do. So, Justification is not about condemnation or the lack thereof.

      Further, I don’t believe that justification is based on whether or not we believe in the death, burial and Resurrection of Christ.

  5. Joel

    ‘Leo, scripture is primary but in the end, we simply can’t read scripture without good scholarship.’

    So good scholarship is primary. With the ‘good’ being defined by whom?

    1. Ahhh… And that is the problem, isn’t it? All of these are good scholars, but which one gets it “right”? In my opinion, good scholarship will vinidicate itself.

      I hope you aren’t suggesting that you can read Scripture without scholarship.

  6. Joel

    I am not saying we should but I do say we can. Many do and reach biblical conclusions on the things that really matter do so. After all most of the early apostles had no ‘advantage’ of scholarship. John makes clear in his letters that the apostolic word and the Holy Spirit were all that God’s people needed to teach them.

    Scholarship is a mixed blessing responsible for as much error as truth, perhaps more.

    1. I have read scholars that grossly misinterpret scripture. I have also read scholars that have answered questions that had vexed me for years. I have sat under local Sunday School teachers who really knew their stuff, but I have also heard pastors completely misapply texts. In addition, every reader brings his own (occasionally unconscious) presuppositions to the text. I could also provide multiple examples of people who ended up with what we would all call “crazy” interpretations of scripture that said they were given special insight by the Holy Spirit.

      It seems to me that the wisest thing to do when dealing with something as important as the Bible is to consult a variety of respected sources and read it with the insights of scholarship, reason, church tradition, and, of course, the Holy Spirit.

      1. Leslie

        I pretty much agree with you here. In practice, since we all live in the world, either directly or indirectly our conclusions will always be influenced by these factors you name in various combinations of them.

        That being said, the Scripture puts stress on the apostolic Word and the Spirit. Crazy interpretations claimed to be insights of the Spirit (along with prejudiced scholarship, false church tradition, faulty and vested reason) will always exist until the church is glorified. The true believer tracks his way through all of these finally guided by Word and Spirit.

        1. Here’s the thing… the Scripture was never meant to be read plainly. Further, it cannot be read without Scholarship, even to the most lay reader. Why? Because even to the plain translation in one’s hands has gone centuries of scholarship.

          Further, I tend to think that since scholarship is supposed to lead truth, and so does the Spirit, the Spirit will use Scholarship to correct our views. We shouldn’t resist.

          1. But Joel… scholarship may be supposed to lead to truth but does it? In the matter of knowing God it has a poor track record. The trouble is many of the scholars are not believers and work from unbelieving assumptions. Indeed, Scripture never gives us to believe scholarship will lead to truth. Indeed it makes clear that the world by wisdom knew not God. It teaches us to distrust ‘worldly wisdom’. It insists that spiritual things are revealed to spiritual people. We are to trust the Spirit not scholarship.

            1Cor 2:6-16 (ESV)
            Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, ​​​​​​​nor the heart of man imagined, ​​​​​​​what God has prepared for those who love him”- ​​​ these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

            ‘the Scripture was never meant to be read plainly’ Not sure what you mean here.

            Of course God will use scholarship. He will use an ass if necessary. But we are never told to rely on scholarship (or an ass). I return to my origin contention that faith is created, sustained and matured by the engrafting of the apostolic Word by the power of the Spirit.

            Since men by scholarship knew not God it has pleased him by the foolish message of the cross to save some…

          2. But John, neither does reading the Scripture, preaching, or the such. Yes, actually, Scholarship does lead to the truth and doesn’t actually have a poor record. Simply because you may be biased against it, or do not agree with it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a good record.

            Everyone “trusts the Spirit.” David Koresh did, Jim Jones did, etc… and etc… and etc… Scripture has been read to fit every occasion, from killing the Jews, to oppressing women, to keeping slavery alive… and all without scholarship, and all by men who claimed to be led by the Spirit. Further, again, every word of Scripture is packed with centuries of Scholarship, directed by the Spirit we should hope, and yet people do not regularly consider the level of that.

            I like your proof-text, but you aren’t using the verses properly.

            The idea of plain sense is not a wholesome method of reading, John.

            I don’t know what you mean by “apostolic Word” but if it is Tradition we can only really rescue Tradition from abuse through neutral scholarship. Otherwise, we find it being used much in the same way as Scripture has been…

            Your last line is just silly.

  7. Morning
    @ Joel: Like you said: “Justification… an action of God or an imputation of God, etc.” (Rom 4:22-24) That is Grace. He is the one that justifies, the process or imputation belongs to Him through our faith in the Lord’s redemptive work. Otherwise, PEACE couldn’t be obtained unless one has being JUSTIFIED (Rom 5:1) One couldn’t be called a CHILD unless Reconciliation has taken place. “NOW we are sons of God” (1Jn 3:2)
    If justification demands any work on my part then it is not through faith. (Rom 4:5-6) It would be impossible any ways.
    – We were FREELY justified (past tense) Rom 3:24.
    – Being NOW justified by his blood (Rom 5:9)
    – It is a GIFT if God (Rom 5:17-18; Eph 2:8)
    Through this Grace we learn to abstain from dead works (Tit 2:11-12) This is Sanctification.
    Sanctification therefore is the fruit of Righteousness. You can’t be unless you are.

    1. Leo,

      Paul has language of saved, being saved, and will be saved. It’s not always a past tense for him. Further, the language of imputation is, as several theologians have noted, not always the most biblical language.

  8. Leo

    I am with you that justification is a complete act in the past. The believer is justified (declared righteous) at conversion. Yet it is not impossible to to say that our history is one of moving from justification to justification, from a verdict in the present to a verdict in the future. The same is true of our sonship. We are sons yet head to sonship. We are redeemed yet await redemption.

    In my view the verdict in the past guarantees the verdict of the future.

      1. ‘But, both of you would be wrong.’

        Joel, I like your bluntness. It amuses me. In this you are a man after my own heart. Pity you are not a man after my own mind, you would have a better chance of being right. 🙂

        1. pu-hah!

          John, at least we can disagree and be pleasant! Not so many people can do that, especially when when one such as you is faced with the juggernaut of intellect and spirituality that I am.

  9. ‘But John, neither does reading the Scripture, preaching, or the such.’… Do what? Lead to truth? Yes it does. The Word taught and engrafted by the Spirit does indeed lead God’s people into truth. Of course people claim to have ‘the Spirit’ who are false. I didn’t say the Word (any word) married to the Spirit (any spirit) leads to truth. The apostolic Word taught by the Spirit of God to people who have the Spirit will grow in the knowledge of God.

    Who are these people? The day of judgement will reveal. In the meantime we are responsible to believe the gospel.

    1. The Spirit leads to Truth, John, and will give us discernment, but nothing in of themselves leads us to truth. Atheists read the Text and as we know, preach it, but they are being led nowhere.

  10. Let me ask all of you:
    What would you consider your present standing to be?
    Are you saved?
    Are you forgiven?
    Have your iniquities been paid for? Or do you still owe anything?
    I ask because if we can’t define this subject how can we be sure of our salvation? How can we share a message that is so confusing (for some, apparently)
    If any of you answer in the positive to this questions then there’s your answer!!!

    1. Leo

      Faith in Christ (his death and resurrection) justifies. This justification means forgiveness at its most basic. It means I will never face condemnation. This justification was achieved in Christ’s death and resurrection, resurrection being the realisation of God’s justifying verdict on Christ and all in Christ. Christ exalted is a declaration of Christ’s righteousness and of God’s righteousness. My position is Christ’s elevated position. My righteousness is not Christ’s righteous life on earth imputed but is my standing as one united to Christ.

      This union with Christ is also a spiritual union. My new life is life in and through the Spirit. Thus justification inevitably results in righteous living for justification is ‘justification of/unto life’ (back to death and resurrection).

      At the moment I will resist commenting on how this relates to the final judgement or verdict.

    2. Leo,

      All things are in Christ, but I take what Paul said – I was saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.

      I don’t really do the PSA as a totality of the atonement, so to say that my sins were paid for is not really in my lingo.

      1. PSA is not the totality of the atonement but it is a part. Being ‘paid’ is part of the vocabulary of final judgement. It seems also to be part of OT atonement – the exile continuing until the people had atoned for their sins. Sin in turn is a debt cancelled at the cross (Col 2:14).

  11. I would find it fascinating if we were all reading the book together. Leo and John, you could read what the authors say in their own words rather than relying on ours (which are a poor substitute). Every contributor to this book, including the editors, are followers of Jesus and therefore has the Holy Spirit working in his heart and mind. This dedication to Jesus and to scripture is clear throughout the book. I don’t know about Joel, but most of the time when I use the world “scholar” it is short for “Christian scholar.”

    On another topic, here’s a link to blog post by Preston Sprinkle, a very respected evangelical scholar. He does a great job of providing scriptural support for the idea that there is a past, present, and future aspect of justification. http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2012/01/27/what-is-the-new-perspective-part-three/

    Thanks for commenting.

    1. I tend to agree with Leslie – one cannot truly grasp the text unless she or he or they have the sympathetic hear of a believer. It isn’t, after all, Homer’s Odyssey.

  12. Leslie

    You’re right. I do intend to read it. I’m fairly sure I know what Bird and a couple of others will say having read them on this topic elsewhere. I find myself very close to Bird.

  13. Joel said:

    “Here’s the thing… the Scripture was never meant to be read plainly. Further, it cannot be read without Scholarship, even to the most lay reader. Why? Because even to the plain translation in one’s hands has gone centuries of scholarship.

    Further, I tend to think that since scholarship is supposed to lead truth, and so does the Spirit, the Spirit will use Scholarship to correct our views. We shouldn’t resist.”

    I find this a very powerful quote. And true. Except that I would substitute the word ‘Tradition’ for ‘scholarship.’ It is funny that Protestants want to argue so much against faithful, trustworthy ‘Tradition’ (because *they* don’t think it’s faithful – but yet write books with ‘four [Reformed!] views’ on such a central topic as justification), but yet will use very similar language and concepts applied to ‘scholarship.’

    So the holy, faithful, prayerful, God-fearing teachers throughout the Church’s history can’t be trusted, but ‘contemporary neutral PhD’s’ can be? It is really quite unbelievable to me that we Protestants (and Roman Catholics for that matter) have been kicking against the goads for all these years…

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