In Nick's Question about Justification Already and Not Yet--Part 1 I said that I have as much of a problem with Simon Gathercole's formulation of justification "on the basis of faith" as I have with N. T. Wright's statement that justification in the Last Day will be "on the basis of an entire life." Here is the quotation from Gathercole with which I take issue.
In [Romans] 3:28, justification is simply expressed as taking place on the basis of faith, and in 3:30, under exactly the same conditions for Jew and gentile. In Romans 4, Paul locates justification at the beginning of Abraham's life with God: when Abraham is justified , it is on the basis of trust alone, while he is in a state of "ungodliness" (Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5, 250; emphasis added).
I just came to realize that John Piper makes the same mistake as Gathercole does in "What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism." Consider the following portion of this document.
God justifies us on the first genuine act of saving faith, but in doing so he has a view to all subsequent acts of faith contained, as it were, like a seed in that first act.
What we are trying to do here is own up to the teaching of Romans 5:l, for example, that teaches that we are already justified before God. God does not wait to the end of our lives in order to declare us righteous. In fact, we would not be able to have the assurance and freedom in order to live out the radical demands of Christ unless we could be confident that because of our faith we already stand righteous before him.
Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith. The way these two truths fit together is that we are justified on the basis of our first act of faith because God sees in it (like he can see the tree in an acorn) the embryo of a life of faith. This is why those who do not lead a life of faith with its inevitable obedience simply bear witness to the fact that their first act of faith was not genuine.
The textual support for this is that Romans 4:3 cites Genesis 15:6 as the point where Abraham was justified by God. This is a reference to an act of faith early in Abraham's career. Romans 4:l9-22, however, refers to an experience of Abraham many years later (when he was 100 years old, see Genesis 2l:5,l2) and says that because of the faith of this experience Abraham was reckoned righteous. In other words, it seems that the faith which justified Abraham is not merely his first act of faith but the faith which gave rise to acts of obedience later in his life. (The same thing could be shown from James 2:2l-24 in its reference to a still later act in Abraham's life, namely, the offering of his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.) The way we put together these crucial threads of Biblical truth is by saying that we are indeed justified on the basis of our first act of faith but not without reference to all the subsequent acts of faith which give rise to the obedience that God demands.
It seems to me that John Piper's own formulation of the doctrine of justification is just as problematic as is N. T. Wright's. I do not believe that Scripture teaches that we are justified before God on the basis of our faith, including our first act of faith. How is our faith a better basis of our justification than any of our subsequent acts of faith? If John Piper and others pursue their criticisms of N. T. Wright's confusing formulation of the doctrine of justification, should they not clean up their own confusing formulations?
There is a biblical way to hold the two aspects together, but this is not the way. Piper makes one mistake in his attempt to hold the two aspects together. Wright makes another. I count neither to be heretical. Both are somewhat muddling in their formulations, for both get it wrong, in my estimation, as I have been showing in the series of three entries that precede this one.
As for my own beliefs, I have been contending, for all my ministerial and teaching years, that the only basis upon which anyone is justified before God is the obedience of Jesus Christ who gave himself as our atoning sacrifice. We all need to be careful lest we contradict our own beliefs with poorly framed doctrinal formulations. Let's all get our own theological formulations biblically correct so that we can assist others with theirs. Sounds like a theologian's use of Matthew 7:2ff. Doesn't it?
Update (8/10/06): Do blogs have value? Yes, if used well. I will explain.
As I write this, I am keenly aware of what I am saying, for not only do I publish many of my thoughts on the internet, I also publish my ideas and beliefs in essays, books, sermons, and lectures. I am as vulnerable to public criticism as anyone who takes up my vocation. Some people, even some in my vocation, are quick to rebuke anyone who speaks in any public forum concerning the published beliefs of public figures, such as authors, preachers, teachers, etc. They insist that Matthew 18:15-17 demands that we first go to the individuals privately to speak to them before we can ever legitimately say anything to them by way of correction. Such a notion is a mistaken use of Matthew 18. Doug Wilson has made this clear in "Justice and Matthew 18." Since most people do not author books or preach sermons but write private letters or e-mail notes, many do not understand that we cannot reasonably require book critics, for example, to speak to the author of a book before publishing a review of the author's book. In the most recent "Fresh Words," John Piper explicitly makes my point when he states, And I don’t mean you can’t discuss my sermon, both negatively and positively, without coming to me. Public figures put themselves on the line and understand that eve ryone will have an opinion about what they say.
Blogs, available for the world to read, are not to be treated as private correspondence. Hence, we all must be careful to write wisely and well. The same applies to everything published to the internet. Thus, when any blogger, such as I, challenge the ideas and expressions of others who have published items on the web, we are not acting contrary to Matthew 18. This does not mean, however that if we behave badly we will violate other passages of Scripture.
Now to the point of the matter. As one whose vocation is to be devoted to the Word of God and the ministry of the gospel in a variety of venues, particularly in a college setting, I recently have engaged in discussion of justification, particularly because of a recent statement and sermon by John Piper. The above note, in fact, takes issue with the way that John Piper and Simon Gathercole clumsily formulated some of their statements concerning justification. Here is the good news. I will report but I will not reproduce the private e-mail note that I received from John Piper.
John sent me a note which I opened early this morning. He thanks me for my helpful critique of his expression we are justified on the basis of our first act of faith. The theological lapse that I point out is to use the word basis with reference to our faith. John acknowledges the error. As I have characterized the error, it reflects a lapse and some measure of untidiness that crept into both Gathercole's and Piper's formulations of the doctrine of justification. Precisely because both men make it clear in other portions of their writings, preaching, or teaching that Christ is the sole basis or ground of our justification, we would be profoundly wrong to denounce them as heretics or as dangerous men who jeopardize the flock of God. They do not. They are mere mortals, as we all are. They are prone to make mistakes, as we all are. Is this not precisely why we do not implicitly follow men but test all things that our teachers say, with a view to approval (cf. 1 John 4:1-6)? I believe that we need to say the same thing about N. T. Wright. He, too, is a mere mortal. He, too, is prone to make mistakes just as I have done and am quite sure will do again and again. Because of this, it seems to me that I need to be as generous toward N. T. Wright as I am toward Simon Gathercole and to John Piper. All three are ministers of the Word of God. As with Gathercole and with Piper, Wright also believes that Christ is the sole ground for a right standing before God, though, in my estimation, he makes some other statements that seem to counter his plain and unequivocal affirmation that Christ Jesus alone is the basis of being set right with God.
So, are blogs messy? Yes, altogether too much. Do blogs raise the hackles of many? Yes, frequently. Do blogs have anything to contribute for good? Yes, but it all depends upon the vigilance and thoughtfulness of the blogger. Do blogs have a role and function in the arduous and painstaking work of doing Christian theology? Yes, and in this case, John Piper's note to me confirms it. I commend John for his acknowledgment.
An obscure and insignificant blog may be instrumental in correcting a well-known pastor's formulation of doctrine. To the extent that such things take place, may God be praised.
New Update: In response to this blog entry interaction with his expressions concerning justification, John Piper has adjusted the way he expresses the relationship between faith and justification in the on-line document "What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism." No longer does the document speak of the first act of faith as the basis of our justification.