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.

Every Man Who Believes is Justified

I’ll be preaching from Acts 13:13-43 next Sunday. This is perhaps the longest of Paul’s sermons that God preserved and recorded for us. It is a summary of God’s grace and mercy toward the nation of Israel, Jesus’ advent, ministry, rejection, execution and resurrection.

It concludes with a stirring call for everybody (Jew or Gentile) to repent and believe in the Gospel. Paul promised that any person who does believe will be justified by God, set free from slavery to sin, adopted into God’s family and declared righteous in His eyes.

Here is my own translation of Paul’s conclusion:

acts-1338

If you are still rejecting the Gospel, please read and learn about it here.

Works Salvation?

will-work-for-salvation

It is often claimed that James and Paul present different Gospels; that Paul advocates justification by faith and James presents a works based salvation. Well, what of this charge?

James says (2:15-26):

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Paul says:

For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness (Rom 4:2-3).

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified (Gal 2:16).

Here, critics claim, we find irrefutable proof that these disciples were at odds with one another. How sad it is that these skeptics persist in their unbelief, and refuse to fully examine the Scriptures. James certainly does not declare Abraham and Rahab justified by their works, but merely shows us the fruit of their authentic salvation.

God’s purpose in ordering Abraham to offer up Isaac, his only son, was to tempt or test him (Gen 22:1), not declare him righteous! When God saw that Abraham demonstrated the fruits of real faith and trust in Him, he sent an angel to stop him (Gen 22:11-12). This test was not for God, it was for Abraham.

The Old Testament told us Rahab was spared because she hid the Israelite spies sent to scout out the land (Josh 2:1; 6:17, 23, 25). The writer of Hebrews tells us it was her faith that saved her (Heb 11:31), and this revelation comes to us in that great and wonderful passage which extolls the faith of mighty men from ages gone by (Heb 11). There is no hint of justification by works.

Remember also that Paul and James were agreed on the content of the Gospel (Gal 2:1-10). It is folly to suggest this was not so; if it were, we would have evidence of some sort of major disagreement between Paul, Peter, John and James, all of whom agreed on the terms of salvation at that fateful meeting in Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10). James’ main concern in his epistle was to exhort Christians to be useful and to explain the nature of real faith; he was not penning a systematic exposition of doctrine like Paul was in Romans. Scripture must be analyzed in its own context. James wanted Christians to be useful, therefore ” . . . faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone,” (Jas 2:17). The entire context of his epistle is that real faith produces results!

Consider John the Baptist’s words to Jews who came forth to be baptized in the Jordan River;

Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham (Lk 3:7-8).

John didn’t want them unless their faith was proven by deed. They were trusting in physical lineage with Abraham for salvation, and this would not do. There should be some fruit of real salvation. Paul said much the same thing in his letter to Titus when he urged the young preacher to exhort his people to be ready to perform good works.

This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

How much clearer can it be? Works save nobody, but they are the fruit of saving faith. Paul, like James, was concerned that Christians not be “unfruitful” in their walk with the Lord;

And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful (Titus 3:14).

It is clear that these men do not present different Gospels at all. They agreed on the content of the Gospel. They both emphasized that works are the proper fruit of salvation. John the Baptist agreed with them. And, by the way, Christ agreed with them all:

For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit (Lk 6:43).

A man is known by his fruits, for good or bad. I pray that those confused men and women who believe in works salvation come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.