Ordained Servant Online
Editorial: Shorter Catechism 33, Etc.
Gregory E. Reynolds
So much talk about justification by faith. One wonders if this is a good sign or a bad sign. Perhaps a little of both. Revisiting the verities certainly helps us understand them better. But to be continually seeking to reformulate the verities does not seem to me to be the proper instinct for a confessional tradition. It is not the same as asking questions of tradition—a healthy instinct. That may be the real problem: even those who are in confessional churches are simply not used to thinking confessionally. It is not a natural instinct. Modern America is especially unfriendly to the confessional way of thinking. So I am learning what I think is a valuable lesson in this present climate. When I am asked what justification is I recite the answer to Shorter Catechism 33.
While union with Christ is certainly the more comprehensive rubric of Pauline Soteriology we must be careful not to discount the primary place of justification by faith alone in that cluster of benefits accruing to the believer by virtue of that union. No, justification is important in the same way that customs and passports are important to entering a foreign land. The land of heaven is a dominion to which our sin has made us foreigners. The currency of Christ's righteousness is the only passport that will get us through the gate into that holy kingdom. So while justification is a means to an end, it is the indispensable and only way to that end, for it is the only means of entrance into the holy kingdom of God. It is the "way in," contrary to the New Perspective's insistence that this is not the nature of justification. It is all about getting in and staying in.
Five hundred years ago the young monk Martin Luther had been in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt for a little over a year. It would be another decade until that meticulous Dutch scholar Disiderius Erasmus would publish his Greek New Testament. Shortly after this momentous publication Luther realized that the "righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 is not our obedience but Christ's obedience—the righteousness of Christ imputed by God through faith alone. Through this insight Luther found true peace with God in Christ. "This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ..." No wonder he referred to the doctrine of justification as "the article of a standing and a falling church" (Articulus stantis, et cadentis Ecclesiae).
Without denying important differences between Lutheran and Reformed soteriology I should like to assert that there is a vast difference between organizing soteriology under the rubric of justification—a tendency of Luther and Lutheranism—and giving a doctrine primacy in the ordo salutis. Luther was, as is generally acknowledged, not a systematic thinker. However, his metaphor for justification as the "gate to heaven," is, I think, a helpful way for us to understand the primacy of the doctrine of justification, without compromising or undermining the richness of the Pauline organizing principle of union with Christ. Nor, as has been sometimes alleged, does organizing the categories of soteriology under union with Christ necessarily undermine the primacy of the doctrine of justification, or blur the distinction between covenants of grace and works, or what is often referred to as the law-gospel principle.
A century after Luther, during the period of the richest flowering of post-Reformation dogmatics, the Westminster divines formulated a confessional statement that brilliantly and comprehensively accounts for the fullness of the Pauline soteriology without undermining the importance of the doctrine of justification. One of the premier theologians, in what Richard Muller refers to as the first phase of "High Orthodoxy," Francis Turretin, agrees with Luther that justification is a "principle rampart of the Christian religion. This being adulterated or subverted, it is impossible to maintain purity of doctrine in other places."
Two hundred years after Luther, our American Presbyterian forefathers first met in 1706. They assumed the truth of this fundamental doctrine so beautifully and crisply summed up in Shorter Catechism #33 "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." Now three hundred years later we are asked to consider the proposition that Luther and every Protestant after him have misunderstood Paul on this central theological topic. This is not to say that Luther or the Lutherans account for the richness of New Testament soteriology or organize their theology in a way best suited to answer the criticisms and concerns of those who are suggesting, and in some cases even campaigning for, reconsideration. It is the genius of post-Reformation formulations of the categories of soteriology—especially in terms of its specifically Pauline structure—that makes our confessional documents so important as they give us the categories in their proper relations and emphases, that at once enable us to defend the orthodoxy of the biblical system of doctrine, answer the concerns of critics, and help us to appreciate what is helpful in their reconsiderations.
The concern that the doctrine of justification will undermine the quest for holiness of life is not new. One reason for this perennial concern is its extreme importance to the Christian. But both Paul and our Confession respond clearly to this charge. While the concern not to inhibit or undermine progress in sanctification is laudable, Scripture and our doctrinal standards adequately satisfy the concern. The latter does so in a way that I believe is more biblical and cogent than other theologies arising from the Protestant Reformation.
To put it in very personal terms: it is not enough that I should enter the kingdom through the cancellation of the awful debt represented in my sins. I also need to know that that same righteousness that cancels the debt is also the ground of my being accepted in the sight of God throughout my present sojourn. Whether or not we choose to use the word "active" to describe the obedience that is now imputed to me by grace through faith, one thing is clear: if the obedient life of Christ is not the lens through which an awesomely holy God views me, I can have no confidence of his acceptance. Knowing, along the rocky pathway of sanctification, that I am accepted in the Beloved is fundamental to my motivation to practice the holy commandments of our God.
While active obedience is not used in our confessional documents, the perfect obedience of Christ throughout his life is clearly in view as the Larger Catechism parses the "righteousness of Christ" imputed to us in question 33 as "perfect obedience." This is a clear reference to the covenant of works entered into with the First Adam (WSC 12; WLC 20). Thus WCF 11.1 refers to "the obedience and satisfaction of Christ." What can this be if not the active and passive obedience of Christ? I hope to die with the same assurance as Machen, as he recognized how wonderful the active obedience of Christ is.
More important is how assurance of God's acceptance helps me live the Christian life. The relationship of justification and sanctification is critical to understanding the uniqueness of Reformed theology. For while our entrance into the kingdom clearly requires an imputed righteousness, the fullness of our connection with it can only be appreciated in terms of the Pauline doctrine of union with Christ. This union guarantees sanctification as necessary—not to the ground of justification—but to salvation. No one can claim Christ as Savior without the pursuit of holiness. Justification is part of the salvation revealed in Christ, not the whole of it. The passport of Christ's righteousness is our only hope of acceptance with God, but we must actually make the journey of sanctification in order to arrive in the heavenland. As our Confession so carefully formulates that relationship: "Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love." (WCF 11.2). We must, then, not shy away from preaching the necessity of sanctification, even as we declare our sure possession of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Union with Christ enables us to take the warnings of Scripture with utmost seriousness, while at the same time clinging to the righteousness that alone guarantees us present and future acceptance before God.
Every true Christian, from whatever theological tradition, wants to affirm that God's grace in forgiveness and new life is based wholly on the free gift of Christ's righteousness, received by faith. "And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith" (Phil. 3:9). Every true Christian at the same time wants to affirm that grace is not a license to sin, but rather a call to holiness of life. "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity" (2 Tim. 2:19).
Avoiding the Scylla of antinomianism and the Charybdis of legalism is, I think, most consistently accomplished in the system of doctrine that we affirm: the Reformed faith, comprehensively articulated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is a great comfort to be part of a confessional church. We have answers to the most important questions in life: How can I be right with God and live faithfully before him? Our answers do not require pitting two great themes of the Bible against one another. Our Confession and Catechisms marvelously summarize the Bible's saving truth. We are saved by the righteousness—the obedient life and sacrificial death—of the Second Adam. To compromise this is to lock heaven's gate. But once through the gate we are saved to grow in righteousness. When it comes to defending heaven's gate itself we should not hesitate to stand with Luther. But the Reformed system is a superior way of organizing the rest, especially when it comes to the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification. Imaging—imitating—Christ is the whole purpose of God's plan of salvation. "[P]redestined to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29). We have Shorter Catechism 33 and 35. And then there is also 38. Union with Christ is the unifying Biblical topic for soteriology. This is where we should locate justification. Shorter Catechism questions 29 through 38 clearly teach the entire cluster of benefits flowing from that union. If all of the questions about justification help us to appreciate this, it is worth the effort. About these things there should be no doubt.