My Dear Friends,
In recent years “the hinge on which religion turns” (John Calvin’s description of justification) has become a theological storm-centre. It might be expected that unbelieving, liberal scholars would deny the double imputation that lies at the heart of God’s justification of the ungodly, the imputation of our sin to Christ and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. Sadly, however, it is professing evangelical Christians, even Reformed Christians, who are seeking to re-define the doctrine of justification that has been the heritage of Bible-believing Christians since the Reformation.
This revisionist movement is called the New Perspective(s) on Paul. Its most notable champion is N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham. In a number of scholarly books and papers, Bishop Tom has argued that Luther and Calvin, and indeed the whole church since the days of the apostles, have misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on justification. The title of one of his more recent books says it all, “What St Paul Really Said” (the hubris of the title is staggering!) It is not my intention to elaborate on Wright’s arguments. Rather I want to commend to you the most recent response to him by John Piper.
“The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright”, is John Piper’s scholarly and readable response to Wright’s profound errors. What is particularly impressive about Piper’s book is its rigorously exegetical character. He takes us back to the word of God and subjects the Bishop’s teaching to its scrutiny. Text by text, line by line, Piper exposes how flawed Wright’s views are. Not only does Wright not understand Luther and Calvin; more seriously he does not understand the teaching of the Bible. He wants to affirm that we are justified by faith alone. However, he effectively makes “faith” into “faithfulness”, and ends up saying that our future and final justification is on the basis of our works, albeit works produced by faith. This is a denial of the gospel of “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone”. Certainly good works give Spirit-wrought evidence of our union with Christ and our justification in him. But they are in no sense the basis of our justification - Christ alone is the ground or basis of our justification (see Rom.3:24,28; 4:5; 5:1).
Allow me then to encourage you to do two things: First, buy and read Piper’s book. Read it slowly, looking up the verses as you go along. Become better acquainted with the wonderful truth of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believing sinners. Marvel anew that God should have found a way to “justify the ungodly” in his Son. Secondly, memorise the remarkable definition of justification in the Shorter Catechism (looking up the biblical references):
Q. “What is justification?”
R. “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Rom.3:24-25; 4:5-8; 2 Cor.5:19,21; Rom.5:17-19; Gal.2:16; Phil.3:9).
Here is the ground of the Christian’s assurance: I stand before God cleansed by the Saviour’s atoning blood and clothed in his perfect, indefectible righteousness. Nothing and no-one can lay any charge against me, “It is God who justifies” (Rom.8:33). As the prophet Isaiah so memorably puts it: "But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult. (Isaiah 45:25). Soli Deo Gloria.
Yours in Christ,