Christ and Sonship

I’m working on a catechism that I intend to self-publish. It’ll be an amalgamation of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism, Spurgeon’s catechism (itself an edited, not original, work), Keach’s catechism and a few odds and ends from me.

I intend to give it away to new members who join the congregation where I minister, and to have it available as a cheap, inexpensive resource I can point people towards. I self-published my last book, and I am very happy with Amazon’s self-publishing options. They produce a quality trade paperback that’s quite a bargain if you have the patience to do your own editing and layout.

I’m using the Heidelberg Catechism as my base, lightly editing some of the questions and answers as I go. Occasionally, I’m adding significant portions of material. One of them is regarding Christ and His Sonship. Compare the original material and my revisions, below:

Original

Q: Why is he called God’s “only begotten Son” when we also are God’s children?

A: Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. We, however, are adopted children of God—adopted by grace through Christ.

My revision

Q: Why is He called God’s one and only (or “begotten”) Son, since Christians also are children of God?

A: Christ is not God’s “Son” in a biological sense, but in a different sense. It means He has the same nature as the Father, which means the same power, glory majesty and honor. Thus, Luke calls Barnabas a “son of encouragement,” which means he has an encouraging nature. This is the way in which Jesus is God’s “Son;” He is equal.  

Christians, however, are children of God by adoption, through grace, for Christ’s sake. We do not naturally belong to Him. Instead, He wrests sinners from Satan’s grasp, brings us into His family and clothes us in His Son’s perfect righteousness.

Differences

The original kept the unfortunate rendering “only begotten,” which really means “unique” or “one and only.” So, I changed it.

It also, I believe, retained a wrong idea of what “sonship” means. I don’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation, and I don’t believe most people (even theologians) can really explain what it means in normal language without conveying the idea of derivation. I am certainly not alone here; no less a theologian than Millard Erickson (see his excellent Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?) criticizes the doctrine. See especially David Beale’s discussion of eternal generation’s doctrinal development (Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. [Greenville: BJU Press, 2013], 2:142-170).

So, I don’t believe Christ’s sonship has anything to do with an eternal generation from the Father. The very idea smacks of some kind of derivation. I believe Christ’s sonship refers primarily to His equality with the Father, and I made sure to bring this out.

Thoughts About the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to teach, because there are so many ancient heresies to guard against and because, well … it’s complicated. But, the Scriptures present God as triune. That means we need to teach about Him. We need to teach Christians to know Him and love Him as He is; and He’s triune.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the doctrine of the Trinity; probably more than most pastors. That, and Christology, are my own hobby horses. Some people find joy in making complicated end-times charts. Others find fulfillment in being a Baptist fundamentalist. Still other Christians find their religious self-identity in a particular view of the doctrine of salvation. I like to study about who God is, and how He’s revealed Himself.

I just finished Millard Erickson’s God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity. It’s a very good book, but probably not the most engaging thing for the “average” Christian to read. It presupposes a lot of theological training. Erickson’s book is one of the most helpful works on the Trinity I’ve read. On balance, I’d say Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity may have had a more formative influence on me, but this might be because I read it first. Beckwith is a good Lutheran, and Erickson is a irenic conservative Baptist, but they’ve both produced very fine works on this most important of doctrines.

As I think on the doctrine now, here is a non-exhaustive list of things (in no particular order) I think need to be emphasized if one wishes to teach the Trinity in a comprehensive way.

1: The “three foundations” James White mentioned in his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity

  • Monotheism; there is only one God
  • There are three divine persons
  • Each person is co-equal and co-eternal

I think the best way to do this is to walk through several passages of Scripture that support each foundation. The trick is to be comprehensive without being exhaustive.

2: The definitions of “Being” and “Person”

Both these terms have baggage, and were fought over during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. We need to consider how the great creeds seem to use these terms, but we shouldn’t be slaves to, for example, 4th century expressions of theological categories. In other words, just because the 4th century creeds may not have intended to convey a more modern concept of “personhood” which includes self-consciousness, this does not mean this modern definition of “personhood” is wrong!

The terms “being” and “person” are good; but their proper definitions must always comport with Scripture. I am concerned with a kind of rote confessionalism that encourages an almost slavish devotion to old formulations of eternal doctrine. This isn’t a call to jettison historical theology; it’s simply a call to not be a slave to it.

3: The Trinity as a society of persons

This is Erickson’s term, and I like it. He wrote, “The Godhead is a complex of persons. Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others,” (221). He explained:

… the fundamental characteristic of the universe is personal … The supreme person is indeed a person, with identity, thought, will and personality, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, conscious to both parties. This supreme being, however, was not content to remain solitary. He acted to create reality external to himself. This involved the creation of the material universe and all physical objects within it. It also involved bringing into existence other selves besides himself. These persons, to a large extent, exist for relationship with the creating and originating God. If, then, the most significant members of the creation are persons in relationship, then reality is primarily social. This means that the most powerful binding force in the universe is love.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 220-221.

This is good, but I think he could have brought more of the holiness attribute into play. God’s love is defined by His holiness. It doesn’t exist apart from it. I buy that God didn’t have to create creation (and, particularly, human beings), so clearly He desired worship and social interaction, so clearly He is social.

But, is “love” the best way to get this across? Probably. I struggle to express this without having to toss in caveats about how this isn’t narcissism on God’s part. He didn’t want us because of who we are; He wants us to worship Him because of who He is. In other words, we aren’t doing God any favors by being believers! God isn’t a harried middle-manager who’s “so happy to have us on the team,” so to speak.

4: Perichoresis as the guard against tritheism

I never heard about this doctrine at seminary; or, at least, I don’t remember. I first came across it in Carl Beckwith’s volume. Erickson echoes it here. Briefly, Erickson explains, “[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God,” (235).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Spirit, in John 14-16. In a recent sermon on that same passage, I described this interpenetration as an eternal, divine union between Persons. I was happy to see Erickson echo my own thoughts and state, “[t]he Godhead is to be thought of as less as a unity, in the sense of oneness of simplicity, than as a union, involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” (264).

The generic, conservative expressions of the Trinity (even in some theological texts) is often a functional tritheism. This doctrine of perichoresis was revolutionary to my own thinking, and I think it’s rightly the key to avoiding the charge of tritheism.

5: Analogies can be useful

There are lots of really bad Trinity analogies. Some theologians believe we should cast aside all attempts to make analogies, because they each inevitably fall short. Erickson disagrees, and sees them as useful symbols for pointing to a larger reality. Erickson explains:

It is simply not possible to explain it [the doctrine of the Trinity]unequivocally. What must be done is to offer a series, a whole assortment of illustrations and analogies, with the hope that some discernment will take place. We must approach the matter from various angles, ‘nibbling at the meaning’ of the doctrine, as it were.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 268.

What I’ve taken away from this is that some analogies are useful to get at different aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • for the idea of a composite union forming one entity, Erickson suggests the analogy of the brain, the heart and the lungs forming distinct but integral parts of a human body. Each is quite useless on its own, and by itself each could never be called “human.” But, combined together, we have a human being. Thus it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they do not exist and have never existed without each other. They are more than the sum of their parts.
  • for the concept of interpenetration as closeness of relationship, Erickson suggests a marriage.

6: There is no eternal subordination of function or nature

Most conservative evangelical pastors are taught that there is an eternal subordination of function in the Godhead. That is, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power, glory, honor (etc.), but they have different roles in accordance with their functions. The Father is always “in charge,” as it were, because He has a particular role to play. This is why the Son always obeys the Father, etc.

Advocates for this position often reach to the analogy of complementarian marriage; men and women are equal before God, but the husband is in charge because he’s been assigned a superior role. There is equality in essence, but subordination in function.

I couldn’t agree less. I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly. I’ve read Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit (EFS) and I’ve read Erickson’s book against EFS. As far as I’m aware, only Erickson, Kevin Giles and D. Glenn Butner have written book-length works against EFS – the rest of the generically conservative evangelical folks seem to tilt towards EFS.

The issue of eternal generation is tied up with EFS; it’s advocates generally don’t hold to eternal generation. Interestingly, Erickson opposes EFS and dislikes eternal generation. J. Oliver Buswell Jr., who didn’t address the issue (‘cuz it wasn’t an issue in his day), presents Christ’s functional subordination as temporary and strongly suggests we get rid of eternal generation altogether. David Beale, a theologian and historian much closer to home, dedicated perhaps 30 pages of his historical theology to arguing against eternal generation. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t understand eternal generation and have never read an account by a theologian who seemed to understand it, either (including Beckwith, who is otherwise excellent). I think Shedd came close, but I forgot his reasoning one day after reading it – it’s very convoluted. It smacks of some kind of ontological subordination to me, no matter which way you slice it – and it doesn’t seem tied to the text.

Erickson writes:

I would propose that there are no references to the Father begetting the Son or the Father (and the Son) sending the Spirit that cannot be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity, respectively. They do not indicate any intrinsic relationship among the three. Further, to speak of one of the persons as unoriginate and the others as eternally begotten or proceeding from the Father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some kind of subordination among them …

There is no permanent distinction of one from the others in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 309-310.

Erickson unpacked this at great length in his book examining EFS, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, which I recently read and agreed with.

Now what?

I want to teach the Trinity in church one day, unpacking these concepts in a way average, ordinary Christians can understand. These concepts, mentioned briefly above, will likely form the backbone of what this teaching series will eventually look like. The problem, again, is how to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. I don’t think I can do that, right now.

So, for now, I nibble around the edges a bit, emphasizing what I can as the text suggests it. Right now, I preach a sermon on either the Trinity, or Father, Son and Spirit each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is monthly. In this manner, I’ll likely cover all of this eventually but I’d like to bring it all together in two sermon or two, one day. I don’t know if I can do that!

But, I can at least say that I’ve read (and continue to read) widely on the subject, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can accurately sketch out where I need to go. The latest three watershed revelations for me are that (1) the concept of perichoresis is extraordinarily helpful and biblical, (2) EFS is quite dangerous, and (3) the doctrines of eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession (i.e. some sort of taxis with the Godhead) are likely extra-biblical and can be dropped.

I plan to order Erickson’s book on God’s attributes, and his tome on the incarnation soon. It may not come as a great surprise that Erickson is my favorite theologian! I need to read Beckwith’s book again, and I plan to see what Moltmann and Brunner have to say about the Trinity, too. I also need to delve into the patristic authors more. There’s always more to read, but it’s always fun.

What is the Central Theme of the Bible?

There are lots of opinions on how to summarize the story of reality God gives us in the Bible. Mike Vlach argues “kingdom” is the grand theme of Scripture, which I first encountered at Seminary and through Alva McCain’s book. Indeed, Vlach’s new release is often seen as supplanting McClain’s tome as the premier biblical theological study on the Kingdom of God, from a dispensational perspective.

I agree that “kingdom” is the main theme of the Bible. Here is Vlach’s summary of the Bible’s storyline with “kingdom” as the theme (pg. 23):

Who is the Word?

john 1
Excerpt from John 1 from manuscript GA 01 (courtesy of CSNTM.org)

The Gospel of John is important. And, in a piece of writing noted for its Christology, the prologue (John 1:1-18) is rightly considered to be a masterpiece. Because it’s so important, it’s attracted any number of critics and false teachers who desperately try to explain why it doesn’t actually say … what it actually says.

An ordinary Christian can go batty pondering all the controversies inherent in this passage. Was John 1:1 (“and the Word was God”) translated correctly? Have Christians been influenced by pagan, Greek philosophy to interpret “the Word” as the co-equal, co-eternal Son of God? These are good questions, and lots of good theologians and bible teachers have lots of good answers for them. But, setting these issues aside for a time, if you take a step back and just consider the content as a literary unit the message is very clear.

Who is the Word?

At1 the very beginning, when the creation happened, the Word was there (Jn 1:1a). So, whoever this Word is, He’s eternal. He’s prior to creation. More than that, the Word is with God (Jn 1:1b). God is before creation, and so is the Word. They’re together. They share the same space; they’re with one another. Even better yet, the Word actually is God (Jn 1:1c).

But, how can this be? How can the Word actually be God? John is saying the Word is somehow distinct from God and there at the beginning with God. Yet, the Word is God, too. What does this mean? It shows us that God and the Word are both eternal, they both stand outside of creation, and they both share the same nature. They’re one, and yet they’re distinct, too.

And, God made everything through the Word (Jn 1:3). The language conveys personal agency, and the Word is the living, active and personal agent who made creation on God’s behalf. “Without Him was not anything made that was made,” (Jn 1:3). Why is that? It’s because “in him was life” (Jn 1:4); that is, the Word contains life and is the source of life and creation. This life is the light which shines the way for men to come to faith; to escape from the figurative darkness of sin and wickedness (Jn 1:4b-5).

The Apostle John then briefly explained the Baptist’s ministry. God sent him to tell people about the Word (note the distinction again). John proclaimed the Word was the light for all men “that all might believe through him,” (Jn 1:7). John himself wasn’t the light, “but came to bear witness about the light,” (Jn 1:8).

The irony, of course, is that the very Creator of creation came into the world, “yet the world did not know him,” (Jn 1:10). He came to His own people, and they rejected Him (Jn 1:11). Notice that it isn’t God who came to His people; it was the Word. Of course, the Word shares the same nature as God so He can properly be said to be God. But, in this prologue, the Word and God are distinguished from one another. John will go on to speak of the Father in contrast to the Son later in the book. For now, however, it’s enough to know John is painting a deliberate contrast between God and the Word.

It’s true people rejected the Word. But, that’s not the end of the story. It all doesn’t end in tragedy and darkness. After all, “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (Jn 1:5). In fact, the Apostle hastens to add, to everyone who did receive the Word (that is, who believed in His name; in effect, who He was as the incarnate God-Man), the Word did something very special. He gave these people the right or privilege to become God’s children (Jn 1:12). The Word didn’t give people the power to become His children; He made them God’s children.

People aren’t born into God’s family; they have to be adopted by God. John explains God’s children don’t come to Him by blood relation, or by the sexual desires of a man or woman who produce a child, or even the desires of the husband himself. People don’t become God’s children by physical descent, or by the will of any of his parents. How, then? They’re born from God’s will.

Again, notice the delineation of roles:

  • God wills people to become His children
  • This will is actuated when they receive the Word by believing on His name; that is, in who He is as the incarnate GodMan.

This is beautiful, and the Apostle tells us how it all came about. The Word “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14). This is the incarnation, where the Word added a human nature to His divine nature.2 God (i.e. the Father) didn’t become flesh and come here; the Word did. John and the other apostles are eyewitnesses who saw the Word’s glory! What kind of glory was it? It was the glory of the unique, one and only Son who comes from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). In other words, it was the same as the Father’s glory.

Notice that John more precisely defines “God” here as “the Father.” It was His glory that descended on Sinai (Ex 19:16-19), that filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38) and Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 8:1-11). It was also His glory that left that same temple during the exile (Ezek 8-10), and hasn’t returned since. The Word’s glory is just like that.

This Word is the one who John the Baptist preached about. He told everyone the Word would come on the scene after him, but outranks him. Why does the Word outrank John, a true prophet from God? Because the Word came before John (Jn 1:15). This makes sense, because the Word created Creation according to the Father’s will and only walks the earth because He “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14).

The Word’s glory, which John and the others saw and marveled at, is full of grace and truth. Why does John say this? Because from His grace all believers continue to receive grace upon grace; that is, an unending low of graces while pile atop one another (Jn 1:16). What’s so marvelous about this cascade of grace upon grace? Well, the Apostle says, the law came from Moses, but grace and truth came from Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17). Here John stops being coy and explicitly identifies Jesus as the Word.

This is the New Covenant; the new and better way that Jesus inaugurated with His life, death, burial and resurrection. The law of Moses did bring grace and forgiveness to the believer but that atonement wasn’t final and permanent; it was on layaway. The law of Moses did point to the truth of Christ but it didn’t contain that truth; it was a marker along the way. John was obliquely referring to the new and better covenant, which all believers show and tell the world about as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in local churches.

Nobody has ever seen God. But, the only God who is at the Father’s side has made Him known (Jn 1:18). Once again, John draws a distinction between Father and Son, and identifies Jesus as God once more. Moses is the penultimate Israelite, but he couldn’t see God. Jesus sits at the Father’s side, and He’s come here to make Him known to us. Moses served his purpose, and even he knew someone else would come from God (Deut 18:15f). That someone is Jesus, the Word who was there before the beginning, who can fully reveal God to sinful men.

The Word is God the Son Incarnate

John’s prologue isn’t hard to understand. But, too many people make it hard (which isn’t at all the same thing) when they refuse to read it as a literary unit, or have a theological agenda, or waste sermons explaining the joys of Colwell’s Rule in John 1:1. The prologue is about Christ, and it tells us He is distinct from the Father, and co-equal and co-eternal with Him. It’s a synopsis of Christ’s identity and ministry. It’s the Apostle’s dustjacket summary of the incarnation:

The Word existed before Creation. The Word made Creation. The Word was with God before Creation, and He’s also God, too. God made everything through the Word, who contains and embodies life itself and acts as a light for all men. That light shined in the darkness, and Satan still hasn’t overcome it.

God sent John the Baptist to tell everyone about the Word, but the world rejected the Word anyway. But, for those few who did receive the Word, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become God’s children. To do all this, the Word took on flesh, dwelt among us, and eyewitnesses saw His glory. His glory was like that of the only Son’s, identical to the Father’s, full of grace and truth. And, the Word pours out grace upon grace to His people; to those who received Him. Moses brought the law, but Jesus brought the new and better covenant characterized by grace and truth.

Nobody has ever seen God, but Jesus (the only God) who sits at the Father’s side has made Him known to all who have ears to hear. He’s better than Moses. He’s Moses’ successor. And, to all who receive Him He gives the privilege to become a child of God, according to God’s will.

Notes

1 The preposition here (Ἐν ἀρχῇ) is temporal, and the sense is “at the beginning;” that is, at the point in time at which creation began.

2 “Accordingly, while the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible, so that as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus,’ might from one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable. Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours,” (Leo the Great, “The Tome of St. Leo,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Henry R. Percival (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 14:255.

 

Medieval Christianity

booksThe Middle ages are often neglected by Christians, even by many who actually read church history. The early post-apostolic era usually receives a great deal of attention, along with the reformation era. But, the medieval church is usually the odd man out. Over the past year or so, I’ve been slowly trying to fill this gap in my own mind.

I’ve listened to Dr. Carl Trueman’s introductory course on The Medieval Church. Trueman is a church historian. I’ve been listen to Dr. James White’s Sunday school series on church history, which runs to 60 lessons now. I’ve read some works by Anselm of Canterbury and a bit of Thomas Aquinas. I’ve R.W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle AgesI’ve started to read Philip Schaff’s volumes on medieval Christianity (vols. 4-6) from his work History of the Christian Church.

So far, one thing I’ve taken away from this self-study is that there were many people in the medieval church who were, undoubtedly, Christians. God’s truth was not lost, and He has always had His people. I could say more, but I’ll save that for another time. I’ll simply observe that one cannot read Anselm’s Why God Became Man (you can find the book in this volume) and not believe the man was a Christian!

Here are some comments from Schaff, the renowned 19th century church historian, about medieval Christianity:[1]

Mediæval Christianity is, on the one hand, a legitimate continuation and further development of ancient Catholicism; on the other hand, a preparation for Protestantism. Its leading forces are the papacy, monasticism, and scholasticism, which were developed to their height, and then assailed by growing opposition from within.

Christianity, at its first introduction, had to do with highly civilized nations; but now it had to lay the foundation of a new civilization among barbarians. The apostles planted churches in the cities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and the word “pagan,” i.e. villager, backwoodsman, gradually came to denote an idolater. They spoke and wrote in a language which had already a large and immortal literature; their progress was paved by the high roads of the Roman legions; they found everywhere an established order of society, and government; and their mission was to infuse into the ancient civilization a new spiritual life and to make it subservient to higher moral ends. But the missionaries of the dark ages had to visit wild woods and untilled fields, to teach rude nations the alphabet, and to lay the foundation for society, literature and art.

Hence Christianity assumed the character of a strong disciplinary institution, a training school for nations in their infancy, which had to be treated as children. Hence the legalistic, hierarchical, ritualistic and romantic character of mediæval Catholicism. Yet in proportion as the nations were trained in the school of the church, they began to assert their independence of the hierarchy and to develop a national literature in their own language. Compared with our times, in which thought and reflection have become the highest arbiter of human life, the middle age was an age of passion. The written law, such as it was developed in Roman society, the barbarian could not understand and would not obey. But he was easily impressed by the spoken law, the living word, and found a kind of charm in bending his will absolutely before another will. Thus the teaching church became the law in the land, and formed the very foundation of all social and political organization.

The middle ages are often called “the dark ages:” truly, if we compare them with ancient Christianity, which preceded, and with modern Christianity, which followed; falsely and unjustly, if the church is made responsible for the darkness. Christianity was the light that shone in the darkness of surrounding barbarism and heathenism, and gradually dispelled it. Industrious priests and monks saved from the wreck of the Roman Empire the treasures of classical literature, together with the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings, and transmitted them to better times.

The mediæval light was indeed the borrowed star and moon-light of ecclesiastical tradition, rather than the clear sun-light from the inspired pages of the New Testament; but it was such light as the eyes of nations in their ignorance could bear, and it never ceased to shine till it disappeared in the day-light of the great Reformation. Christ had his witnesses in all ages and countries, and those shine all the brighter who were surrounded by midnight darkness.

Notes

[1] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 4:11–12.

Is ‘Justification by Faith’ a New Doctrine?

courtroomI’ve been reading a delightful, two-volume historical theology text by David Beale, a longtime Professor of Church History at BJU Seminary. I’ve just finished the first volume, where Beale discusses what early church fathers taught about the doctrine of justification by faith.

Briefly, this doctrine is a summary of the clear Biblical teaching that:

  1. people are born inherently evil and wicked (indeed, as guilty criminals), and
  2. people are only justified (i.e. declared innocent) in God’s eyes when they repent and believe in who Jesus is and what He’s done (i.e. He lived a holy and perfect life in our place, He suffered, died and endured the punishment for our crimes, and He miraculously rose from the dead after three days to defeat Satan for us, as our representative)
  3. and, the merits of everything Jesus did for us (see above) are legally applied to our account when we repent and believe the Gospel
  4. so, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is imputed (or applied) to our account by God

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith puts it this way:

We believe that the great gospel blessing which Christ secures to such as believe in him is Justification; that Justification includes the pardon of sin, and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness; that it is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood; by virtue of which faith his perfect righteousness is freely imputed to us of God; that it brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other blessing needful for time and eternity.

And, you can see a slightly different explanation from the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (chapter 11):

Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, 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 by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.

The big question

But, Christians want to know – where was the doctrine of justification by faith taught before the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century? To be sure, the Bible clearly teaches it, so we know people believed it. But, who officially taught it? Where was it taught? Did the earliest Christians leaders, after the apostolic era, teach it?

Beale says there is no evidence for it. He wrote:

In the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus (unknown date), there is a brief but fluent expression of God’s giving His Son as a ransom to cover our sins and His giving our sins to His Son to justify us:

He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! (9)

Reading that paragraph prompts a longing for more. Regrettably, however, there is not one extant treatise from the patristic centuries on the biblical teaching of forensic justification by faith alone, or on the blood of Christ as the only ground for justification. Many of the earliest fathers, such as Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias obviously believed in the efficacious character of Christ’s blood and death. None denied it. Ignatius even speaks of the shedding of ‘God’s blood.’ Among the apologists, though, the emphasis is centered on the incarnation of the Logos, and the actual work of redemption is largely ignored. Origen packages it with a ransom deal with Satan and, in effect, Irenaeus’ detailed recapitulation theory ultimately fails to go beyond the idea of a ransom to the Devil. There is no hint of the blood of Christ being the basis for justification by faith alone. The biblical doctrine of forensic justification by faith suffered great neglect (1:484-485).

That doesn’t mean the post-apostolic leaders in the Christian church didn’t believe it or teach it.[1] It just means we don’t have much on paper which proves they did. This is very interesting. The more I read of the early church fathers, the more I see they were men of their times and their writings (and, remember, we don’t have all of them) reflect their own contexts and challenges, just as ours do, too. They aren’t infallible men, and they certainly aren’t perfect. The Bible teaches the doctrine, even if early Christian leaders after the apostolic era didn’t write much about it.

We must always look to the Bible, the only infallible source of faith and practice God has given us.

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to thy word.
With my whole heart I seek thee;
let me not wander from thy commandments!
I have laid up thy word in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
Blessed be thou, O LORD;
teach me thy statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of thy mouth.
In the way of thy testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on thy precepts,
and fix my eyes on thy ways.
I will delight in thy statutes;
I will not forget thy word (Psalm 119:9-16).

Notes

[1] The Reformed understanding of justification sees God imputing Christ’s righteousness because of His active and passive obedience; that is, because He both (1) obeyed God’s law for us perfectly, and (2) He suffered, bled and died in our place, for our sins. There are some evangelicals who do not believe Christ’s active obedience is part of imputation, and only speak of His death as the grounds of justification. Beale appears to fall into the latter category here, because he keeps referring to “Christ’s blood” and never mentions His perfect, sinless and holy life.

You can see this distinction between the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith as they each define “justification.” I provided the relevant excerpts from both confessions, above. The 1833 NHCF does not mention Christ’s active obedience (i.e. His perfect and holy life, in our place). It only mentions His death. However, the 1689 LBCF specifically mentions both. Incidentally, the excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus suggests both active (“the blameless One for the wicked”) and passive (“He gave His own Son as a ransom for us”) obedience.

I personally agree with and follow the Reformed view.

Bringing Sanity to a Mad Kerfuffle

packerEvery Christian agrees that, when an unbeliever hears the Gospel, and repents and believes the Good News and becomes a Christian, God gets the glory. Salvation is from Him. All praise goes to Him. Got it.

Yet, Christians have argued about the mechanics of how salvation works for a very long time. I like to explain it like this – imagine you’re attending a play in a theater …

Out on stage, in front of the curtain, everybody sees what’s going on. This is salvation viewed from the outside. An unbeliever hears the Gospel, repents and believes, and becomes a Christian. God gets the glory. But, backstage behind the curtain, all sorts of things are happening to produce the scene out front. Props are brought in and moved out. Costumes are changed. Backdrops are arranged. Backdrops are moved. And so it goes. Christians disagree about what’s going on behind the scenes, in the heart and mind of an unbeliever, to produce repentance and faith.

Generally, people tend towards either:

  1. A more “God alone” understanding of what happens behind the curtain, or
  2. A more cooperative scheme, where man and Yahweh work together, in some form or fashion, to produce salvation

There are great, wide, terrible and heretical ditches on both sides of this divide, to be sure. These are complicated waters, and unwary Christians can read a whole lot of irresponsible garbage by folks on both sides of this unending theological war. Few of the folks you’ll read on the internet know what they’re talking about. Even some who do know write very irresponsibly, at times.

This is why it warms my heart to see a responsible theologian bring some balance to this difficult topic. How can a Christian reconcile God’s obvious control and sovereignty over everything in creation, and man’s clear responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel? Well, I have a book you might like to consider …

Way back when, in a galaxy far, far away, a theologian named J.I. Packer wrote a little book entitled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Here’s how he introduced this topic …[1]

There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.

What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.

People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.

The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.

How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.

I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning …

If this is a topic that interests you, consider picking up a copy of this little book. It’s about 120 pages. You can do it!

Notes

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1961), 16-17.