This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Is Our Faith the Basis of Our Justification before God?

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.


Adam Omelianchuk said...

I just read this the other day (I am reading your book)! Thank you!

I have a question though. You and Tom said,

"Though it is true that God has summoned us all to give account of ourselves (Rom 14:12), the Day of judgment has not yet arrived in which the eternal Judge will announce his verdict in keeping with our deeds, until that day, we now stand justified in God’s courtroom by faith only"

By saying we are justified by "faith only" are you not comitting the same error Gathercole and Piper did? Or is it even an error?

Just looking to clarify.

abcaneday said...


Thanks for raising the question. I would think that others might ask the same question.

The difference between what Gathercole and Piper have stated and what Tom and I state in The Race Set Before Us may seem trivial, inconsequential, and nitpicking, but I believe it is actually quite enormous. Gathercole and Piper both expressly say something that is quite sloppy, theologically consequential, but forgivable. They both speak of our being "justified on the basis of faith." In other words, they both lapse into using an expression wrongly that the Refomers and they themselves have strenuously fought and currently fight over which properly used should only be employed with reference to the ground or basis of our justification before God, namely the accomplished work of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-26).

When theologians get sloppy and say that we are "justified on the basis of our faith", they confound the very theological point that they are so vigorously defending, on the one hand, and opposing, on the other. John Piper and Simon Gathercole are correct to make the case that justification before God is not based in our deeds but in Christ alone. Why, then, after clarifying the water of theological dispute, do they muddy the water all over again by so poorly formulating their statements by saying that we are "justified on the basis of our faith"?

This brings me, then, to the portion you cite from The Race Set Before Us. Here it is, for quick reference: "Though it is true that God has summoned us all to give account of ourselves (Rom 14:12), the Day of judgment has not yet arrived in which the eternal Judge will announce his verdict in keeping with our deeds, until that day, we now stand justified in God’s courtroom by faith only." Observe that we do not confound the matter. When we speak of being justified in God’s courtroom by faith only, we are not speaking of the ground of our justification, as does the expression, "justified on the basis of our faith". We preserve the crucial distinction that Christian theologians have been historically careful to make, namely, the distinction between the means and the ground. Faith is not the basis. Faith is the means or the instrument by which justification before God becomes ours. Not one person who does not believe that God raised his Son from the dead will be justified. Belief, though completely indispensable, does not establish the basis of our justification. The basis of our justification before God is what Christ Jesus has accomplished on our behalf (Romans 3:23-26). God inflicted his wrath upon Christ Jesus in order that he might acquit me in his courtroom. He will not inflict his wrath upon me again, for he inflicted his wrath upon Christ on my behalf. Thus, Christ bore the penalty due to me; I receive acquittal (justification) from God that belongs to Christ who was raised on account of our justification (Romans 4:25).

This is the basis of my justification. I, however, must believe in order to be justified. My belief, of course, adds absolutely nothing to the ground of my justification, indispensable though belief is. Its indispensability, however, has nothing to do with the establishment of my justification. Belief is a necessary condition that the gospel requires for our justification before God. As a condition, what we mean is this, that belief must occur for justification to be present. Belief is like breathing. Breathing is a necessary condition for life to be present. Though we cannot live without our breathing, our breathing does not establish life. The establishment of life is owing entirely to God who gives it; our breathing is but a necessary instrument (not the only one) by which life is presently ours. As with our believing (Phil 1:29), our breathing is a gift from God no less than life itself is God's gift. Belief and justification are both gifts from God.

The way we formulate our theological expressions matters enormously. When those who argue against a poorly articulated doctrinal formulation concerning justification lapse into the same error as the one does whom they seek to correct, they need to be called on it. Consistency in our theological formulations is crucial. When we speak of justification, we need always to be diligent to distinguish between the ground or the basis of our justification and the means or the instrument by which justification becomes ours.

Thanks for the question. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

Nick Nowalk said...

Thanks for this, Dr. Caneday. It is a good challenge to keep a Christ-centered perspective on justification--our being united to him in his death and resurrection being the true foundation, and faith only connects me to this, and obedience is only the expression of this and outworking of this reality experientially in my life. I know I need to be more careful in how I talk about the role of faith in these things.

However, I do have one burning question (only because you bring it up!)...what exactly ought we to make of the references to Abraham's justification/being counted righteous at several various times in his life? Every answer I have heard to this, from any view, has always seemed a bit weak and begging the question. Thanks!

abcaneday said...


Have you seen the blog that Tim Porter and I share? We call it CrossTalk. Tim and I have been working our way through Romans. He writes comments on each passage and then I offer further comments. Tim has been stalled for a few months because of a number of ministry demands. So, we've been stuck in Romans 5 for awhile.

You may find my commentary on each portion of Romans 4, here and here and here and here in sequence.

I believe that I address your "burning question" in those commentary notes. If not, please let me know.

abcaneday said...


I'm sorry, I actually missed the first commentary portion on Romans 4: 1-5. Find it here.