A Necessary Distinction

The doctrines of justification and sanctification are both necessary components of the Christian faith.  There is no such thing as a justified but unsanctified sinner and no such thing as a sanctified but unjustified sinner.  Both are essential.  There is, however, a tendency in the church to confuse the doctrines, to combine the doctrines, and to fail to recognize the distinction between the two.  Justification is concerned with Christ’s work for the sinner as the ground of acceptance with our holy God.  Sanctification is the work of the Spirit in the justified sinner whereby he is conformed more and more into the image of the Lord Jesus.

The dogma of Rome is an excellent illustration of a failure to recognize the distinction between the two doctrines.  Rome has reduced the distinction between these two truths and therefore teaches that justification before God includes our works of obedience.  Protestants run the risk of such confusion also.  There is an emphasis today on “living the gospel.”  While I think I understand the sentiment behind such a statement, there is a tendency to move toward Rome in such thinking.  The gospel, strictly defined (see for instance 1 Corinthians 15:1-4), is the historic, revealed message concerning Jesus Christ.  It is that record of events which focus upon Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners.  Technically, one cannot live the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners – it is a message, it is a declaration, it is good news.  One can live in light of it, one can let his conduct be worthy of it, one can pursue holiness; but to live out the events of Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of sinners, is simply not our calling.

When we preach the gospel, we are preaching a historic, revealed and Christ-centered message concerning His doing, dying, and rising again for sinners.  We are preaching the finished work of Christ as the only foundation for acceptance with God.  We are preaching pardon of sins and imputation of righteousness grounded solely in the active and passive obedience of Christ.  We are preaching the glory of God in the reconciling of sinners to Himself by Jesus Christ.  Period.  Full stop.  No additions, no subtractions, no supplements.  When we preach the effects of the gospel, or the transforming power of the gospel, we instruct the people of God regarding the ethical implications of having believed the truth.  If we do not keep these categories distinct, we run the risk of Romanism, Galatianism, or any other “ism” that includes man’s performance in his acceptance with God.

The Bible recognizes the inclination of sinful man to try to take credit for his acceptance with God.  This is precisely why the Apostle Paul labors earnestly in Romans and Galatians (and elsewhere) to highlight the great truths recovered by the reformation believers:  we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.  If we confuse justification and sanctification, we run the risk of departing from these wonderful truths.

For further study:

The London Baptist Confession of 1689, chapters 11 (Justification) and 13 (Sanctification)

Westminster Larger Catechism #77

“The Doctrine of Justification” by James Buchanan, published by Banner of Truth.

“Holiness” by J.C. Ryle, chapter on Sanctification.



Fesko - Justification

Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine by J.V. Fesko

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is foundational to biblical Christianity.  The doctrine has been a constant target of heretics and was central to the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  A study of church history shows that the attack upon the doctrine did not cease after Paul wrote to the Galatians.  The church therefore has had to contend earnestly for the truth of justification and Dr. Fesko has provided the church with an excellent resource to aid her in the presentation, defense, and propagation of the doctrine.  The book is comprehensive in its scope and details the various aspects of the doctrine, namely the doctrine considered historically, exegetically, and theologically.

In chapter 1, Dr. Fesko sets forth justification in church history.  He deals with the patristic era (100-600) under the following subsections:  the Augustine-Pelagius debate, semi-Pelagianism and later Augustinianism.  He then treats the Middle Ages (600-1500) giving specific attention to Aquinas, Scotus, and broader theological developments.  The third section of the historical development is the Reformation and Post-Reformation era (1517-1700).  He ably handles Luther, Calvin, the counter-reformation, and post-reformation era.  The section on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries proved especially helpful as Fekso highlights some inconsistency in Jonathan Edwards.  He finishes the historical survey with the twentieth century to the present and deals specifically with Barth, Bultmann and Kasemann, and the New Perspective on Paul.

The second chapter deals with matters concerning prolegomena.  There is an area where I disagree with the author’s treatment.  He emphasizes that “Reformed theology has recognized that theological language about God is not univocal but ultimately analogical” (p.62).  On p.65 he rightly points out, “Because soteriology, and more specifically justification, is inextricably bound with Christology in the concrete reality of the incarnation.”  When comparing these two statements though, I wonder if we only know the “concrete reality of the incarnation” analogically?  This difference notwithstanding, Fesko competently shows that justification is not one “among many metaphors of our redemption” (p.91) but that it is “at the center of Paul’s thought” (p.92).

After a helpful discussion of the structure of redemptive history (chapter 3), Fesko then addresses specific theological issues relative to justification.  Chapter 4 is an excellent presentation and defense of the covenant of works.  After some introductory and definitional comments on covenant, Fesko sets forth an able treatment of covenant in Genesis 1-3 with appeals to other passages for support (i.e., Gen. 6:18; Hos. 6:7; Rom. 5:12-19).  As Fesko says later on in the book, “as we have seen throughout our study, one’s soteriology must begin with a consideration of protology” (p.401) and his treatment of Adam in the Garden is stimulating.  The first Adam was a type and under the covenant of works.  The last Adam was the antitype who fulfilled the covenant works and secured the redemption of His people.

Chapter 5 naturally leads to “Justification and the Work of Christ.”  Fesko shows how Christ completed the dominion mandate (1 Cor. 15:20-28) and through His obedience laid the foundation for justification.  Since the opponents of justification by faith alone have vigorously attacked the covenant of works and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, Fesko provides a welcomed antidote with which to combat the detractors.  His treatment of the active and passive obedience of Christ is both biblical and confessional and will stand the scrutiny of the gainsayers.

In chapter 6, Fesko takes up “Justification in its Historical Context” and basically disposes with the historical revisionism of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright with their insistence on covenantal nomism in second temple Judaism.  Pertinent to this theme, Fesko sets forth a historically accurate and exegetically sound interpretation of Paul’s use of “works of the law.”  Fesko rejects the notion that justification was for Paul an ecclesiastical (or sociological) concern and sides with the Protestant reformers (and Paul) who defined justification as the answer to the question as to how a sinful man can stand before a holy God.

In chapter 7, Fesko highlights the nature of justification by faith alone.  Through methodical and thorough exegesis of relevant passages, Fesko demonstrates the accuracy of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s emphases concerning justification:  1) it is by faith alone, 2) it involves the remission of sins, and 3) it entails the imputation of righteousness.  There are certain things that happen in history that should not try and be improved upon, and one of those things is question and answer #33 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Fesko does not try and improve upon, but he ably demonstrates the exegetical foundation for the divine’s definition.

In chapter 8, Fekso takes on “Justification and the New Perspective on Paul” which should be of great benefit to Reformed Baptists.  N.T. Wright is embraced by a large number of evangelicals and reformed people alike.  I have personally heard people say, “I know he gets justification wrong, but he sure does a great job with the gospels.”  I believe as Reformed Baptists we should go with those who are good with the gospels AND get justification right.  Fesko’s book is a helpful antidote to the New Perspective on Paul and its “presbyterian” cousin, the Federal Vision.  Fesko’s point is well stated on pp.235-236, “Justification, therefore, is not about the vindication of the people of God before the world as Wright maintains.  Rather it is about the verdict that God passes upon the person who stands in his presence, the verdict of guilty or innocent.”  Amen and amen.

In chapters 9-11, Fesko treats justification relative to other doctrines in the ordo salutis.  Chapter 9 is an excellent treatment of “Justification and Imputation” where the author deals with all of the relevant texts.  The opponents of imputation (Wright) miss the doctrine in 2 Cor. 5:21 and neglect Rom. 5:17-19 in the discussion of imputation.  Fesko provides thorough exegesis which establishes the biblical foundation for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people.  In chapter 10, Fesko treats “Justification and Union with Christ” and shows the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed view with reference to the placement of union with Christ.  Fesko argues that union with Christ undergirds the entirety of the ordo salutis.  Chapter 11 is an able explanation of the connection between “Justification and Sanctification” with attention given to James 2:14-26 (p.291ff.).

Chapter 12 is intriguing as Fesko deals with “Justification and the Final Judgment.”  He shows that justification does not straddle over the already – not yet, but that “the one declaration of justification in the present is revealed in the future by means of the resurrection” (p.323).  He goes on to say,

“In other words, it is not that justification has two parts, present and future, but rather that it has two levels of publication, the resurrection according to the inner and outer man, or in terms of the ordo      salutis, justification and glorification.  When the believer is justified by faith alone, he is immediately  raised with Christ.”  (323)

The opponents of the biblical doctrine of forensic justification speak of “final justification” or “eschatological justification” which usually means there is a place for our works in the completion of our justification.  Fesko however, maintains “the unity of the parousia—resurrection—final judgment,” and thus “preserves the eschatological nature of justification and that the believer’s righteousness in the present is revealed by the resurrection on the last day” (331).

Chapters 13-15 take up the doctrine of justification relative to the church.  In chapter 13, Fesko explores justification from a pastoral perspective and how it relates to the corporate body, missions, pastoral counseling, and baptism.  I was in agreement with his section on baptism until of course he includes infants.  In explaining baptism relative to infants, Fesko writes,

“This means that when an infant is baptized, the grace exhibited in baptism becomes effectual to his salvation after his justification by faith alone, and his faith is further strengthened as he witnesses others who are baptized.”

It is unfortunate that he cannot have his faith strengthened by witnessing his own baptism.  Chapters 14 and 15 deal with justification and the Romans Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church respectively.  Both chapters are very helpful and further demonstrate the need for Protestants to have a biblical and confessional understanding of this great doctrine.

Dr. Fesko has done the church a great service with “Justification:  Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.”  The book has staying power as it deals with an on-going threat to the church of Christ.  Whether the opponents are the Judaizers, the Pelagians, the Roman Catholics, the New Perspective on Paul, or the Federal Vision, the net result is the same:  an attempt is made to distort the truth that in an act of God’s free grace, He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.  Dr. Fesko helps us to respond to the threat.


John Flavel: Covenant of Redemption

“My Son, here is a company of poor miserable souls, that have utterly undone themselves, and now lie open to my justice!  Justice demands satisfaction for them, or will satisfy itself in the eternal ruin of them:  What shall be done for these souls?  And thus Christ returns.  O my Father, such is my love to, and pity for them, that rather than they shall perish eternally, I will be responsible for them as their Surety; bring in all thy bills, that I may see what they owe thee; Lord, bring them all in, that there may be no after-reckonings with them; at my hand shalt thou require it.  I will rather choose to suffer they wrath than they should suffer it:  upon me, my Father, upon me be all their debt.  But, my son, if thou undertake for them, thou must reckon to pay the last mite, expect no abatements; if I spare them, I will not spare thee.  Content, Father, let it be so; charge it all upon me, I am able to discharge it:  and though it prove a kind of undoing to me, though it impoverish all my riches, empty all my treasures…yet I am content to undertake it.”  (Volume 1, p.61)


J. Gresham Machen: Valuing God

“We value God solely for the things He can   do; we make of Him a mere means to an ulterior end.  And God refuses to be treated so; such a religion always fails in the hour of need.  If we have regarded religion merely as a means of getting things – even lofty and unselfish things – then when the things that have been gotten are destroyed, our faith will fail.  When loved ones are taken away, when disappointment comes and failure, when noble ambitions are set at naught, then we turn away from God; we have tried religion we say, we have tried prayer, and it has failed.  Of course it has failed!  God is not content to be an instrument in our hand or a servant at our beck and call.  He is not content to minister to the worldly needs of those who care not a bit for Him…Has it ever dawned on us that God is valuable for His own sake, that just as personal communion is the highest thing that we know on earth, so personal communion with God is the sublimest height of all?  If we value God for His own sake, then the loss of other things will draw us closer to Him; we shall then have recourse to Him in time of trouble as to the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”  (“What is Faith?”)


Edward Fisher: the Sin of Adam

(In response to the claim that “it is a strange thing that so small an offense…should plunge the whole of mankind into such a gulf of misery.)  “Though at first glance it seems to be a small offense, yet, if we look [earnestly] upon the matter it will appear to be an exceeding great offense; for thereby intolerable injury was done unto God; as, first, His dominion and authority in His holy command was violated.  Secondly, His justice, truth, and power, in His most righteous threatening, were despised.  Thirdly, His most pure and perfect image, wherein man was created in righteousness and true holiness, was utterly defaced.  Fourthly, His glory, which, by an active service, the creature should have brought to Him, was lost and despoiled.”  He goes on to explain how Adam broke all ten commandments:  “1. He chose himself another God when he followed the devil.  2. He idolized and deified his own belly…3. He took the name of God in vain, when he believed him not.  4. He kept not the rest and estate wherein God had set him.  5. He dishonored his Father who was in heaven; and therefore his days were not prolonged in that land which the Lord his God had given him.  6. He massacred himself and all his posterity.  7. From Eve he was a virgin, but in eyes and mind he committed spiritual fornication.  8. He stole, like Achan, that which God had set aside not to be meddled with; and this his stealth is that which troubles all Israel – the whole world.  9. He bare witness against God, when he believed the witness of the devil before him.  10. He coveted an evil covetousness, like Amnon [2 Sam 13], which cost him his life, and all his progeny.”  (The Marrow of Modern Divinity, 35-36)

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