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The Peace of Christ

In John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus spends time with His disciples in an upper room prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. He encourages His disciples and readies them for the battle that lay ahead. In Jn 14:27 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” This is a most blessed legacy to leave to His disciples. Matthew Henry commented, “When Christ left the world, He made His will. His soul He bequeathed to His Father and His body to Joseph. His clothes fell to the soldiers. His mother He left to the care of John. But what should He leave to His poor disciples, who had left all for Him? Silver and gold He had none; but He left them what was far better, His peace.”[1] The peace of Christ is a precious commodity that flows from His redemptive work on behalf of His people. Herman Ridderbos wrote, “Jesus’ ‘shalom’ is not a cheap wish. He is now at the point of going away on a journey in which He will have to fight for that peace against the powers of darkness and violence…a peace that He will have to bring back from the depths of death.”[2]

The Apostle Paul writes of the peace of Christ in several places in his epistles. In Eph 2:14-18, he declares that Jesus Christ is our peace (v.14), that He has made peace at the cross (v.16), and that He preached peace to the Ephesians through the apostle’s ministry (v.17). In the book of Colossians, Paul connects the peace of Christ with His reconciling work on the cross, “and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (1:20).  Gordon H. Clark commented on Col 1:20, “Now, when we pause to consider, this is staggering.  The preceding verses have described Christ in transcendent terms.  He was the Creator, in whom all the fullness dwells, the heir of the universe, for whom indeed it was created.  When now the Creator of heaven and earth, the Creator himself, voluntarily suffered on the cross for our sins, we can only stand in awe and worship.”[3]

In conclusion, it is important to understand that our subjective peace is grounded upon objective truth. Paul writes in Rom 5:1, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The believer knows peace because of what Christ accomplished in His life, death, and resurrection.  The believer’s peace is not the outflow of a moral life or of consistent religious observance; rather, the believer’s peace is inseparably connected to the cross of Jesus Christ.  The theological truth of justification by faith alone is not simply a concept that differentiates Protestantism from Roman Catholicism; it is the foundation of the believer’s peace with God.



[2] Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John:  A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 511.

[3] Gordon H. Clark, Colossians (Jefferson, MD:  The Trinity Foundation, [1979] 1989), 50.

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The Doctrine of Imputation

The Bible sets forth two fundamental truths:  God is righteous and man is wicked.  Because of this, the most important question facing man has always been, “How can a sinful man find acceptance with a holy God?”  Ex 23:7 and Dt 25:1 set forth the law which forbids the justifying of the wicked and the condemnation of the righteous which further exacerbates the problem of reconciliation between a holy God and sinful man.  The gospel of Jesus Christ relieves this tension.  The gospel of Jesus Christ answers the question of how a sinful man can find acceptance with God and it does so in a manner consistent with God’s holiness and righteousness.

The Apostle Paul deals with justification by faith alone in Rom 3:21—4:25.  Justification by faith alone in Christ alone is his overarching theme in this section of the great epistle, but Paul also deals with a vital element of justification:  the doctrine of imputation.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question “What is justification?” by stating, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein 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” (WSC #33).  In Rom 3:26, Paul says that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”  God is able to maintain His justice and justify sinners because God “imputes righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6) to those who believe the gospel by God’s grace.

The word “impute” means to reckon to one’s account; to credit to one’s account.  The word is used in a forensic or legal way and destroys the notion of Rome’s transformation of character approach to justification.  In other words, the Protestant reformers correctly understood Paul’s doctrine:  we are justified by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, not an infused righteousness which Rome maintained.  Concerning justification, the 1689 Confession of Faith says,

 “Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justified, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in His death for their whole and sole righteousness…”  (Chapter 11, para.1, emphasis added).

Paul demonstrates this truth in Rom 4 with Abraham and David.  In Rom 4:3 Paul writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  When he believed God, God reckoned him or credited him with righteousness that was not inherently his own.  In Rom 4:6 Paul says, “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.”  This righteousness that David celebrates is not inherent in man; it is imputed “apart from works” and therefore is a righteousness one can truly celebrate!

The Bible speaks of three specific instances of imputation.  In the first place, Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity.  Adam stood in the covenant of works as the federal head or representative of all his posterity.  As WSC #16 says, “Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?  The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.”  This is not a theological construct developed by the Westminster Divines, but a biblical truth recognized by the church since its inception.  Paul writes in Rom 5:18a, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation” and in Rom 5:19a, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” and establishes this link between Adam and his posterity.  The NKJV translation “made” is better rendered “constitute” or “appoint” as Paul’s point is not that the sinner undergoes a moral change, but rather Paul establishes a legal or forensic unity between Adam and his posterity.

The second type of imputation is the sin of the elect imputed to Jesus Christ.  Imputation lies behind the sacrificial transaction in Leviticus chapters 1 and 16:  when the hand was laid upon the sacrificial victim, there was the transfer or imputation of guilt from the sinner to the sacrifice.  Isaiah prophesied that such would be true when the Suffering Servant came into the world, “And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).  The Apostle Paul declares this imputation in 2 Cor 5:21, “For He [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…”  The sense is legal or forensic – sin was imputed to Jesus; He did not actually commit sin.

The third instance of imputation is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people.  After stating that God made Christ to be sin for us, he goes on to declare the purpose behind this activity in 2 Cor 5:21, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  The sense is legal or forensic – righteousness is imputed to the elect; they are not transformed into sinless beings.  We saw above that Paul says imputation of righteousness is “apart from works” in Rom 4:6.  He speaks further to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in Rom 5:18b and 5:19b as he concludes his argument concerning the two men in history that everything hinges upon:  the first Adam and the last Adam.   He writes, “even so through the one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (5:18b) and “so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (5:19b).

The doctrine of imputation is crucial for our understanding of justification.  The doctrine of imputation explains how God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26) and how He is the God who “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).   It is imperative that God’s people study the Apostle’s words and understand his meaning and give serious attention to the abstract theological truths that explain how a holy God saves sinful man.  It is also beneficial for God’s people to see those abstract principles put into a practical context; Zechariah 3:1-5 is one such context.  Joshua the High Priest is brought before the LORD God Almighty.  As a public person, Joshua stands not only for himself, but for the nation.  He stands before the LORD with Satan at his right hand to oppose him, and Joshua is described as being clothed with filthy garments.  The LORD rebuked Satan and dealt most graciously with Joshua.  The filthy garments are removed which demonstrate the pardon of sin, and Joshua is clothed with rich robes which demonstrates the imputation of righteousness.  This blessed transaction is only possible because Jesus Christ was clothed in filthy robes as our sin was imputed to Him (2 Cor 5:21) and He stood in our place and receive the punishment we deserved at the hand of a righteous God.   Thankfully He rose again and this was “because of our justification” (Rom 4:25).

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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.

 

 

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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.