Semi-Pelagianism And Faith As The Instrument Of Existential-Mystical Union With Christ

William Perkins (1558-1602), in his 1595 Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, on the question of effectual call, wrote:

Againe, if the Vocation of every man be effectual, then faith must be common to all men either by nature, or by grace, or both: now to say the first, namely, that the power of believing is common to all by nature, is the heresie of the Pelagians, and to say it is common to all by grace, is false. All men have not faith, saith Paul. 2. Thess. 3. 2. nay many to whom the Gospel is preached, doe not so much as understand it and give assent unto it; Satan blinding their minds that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should not shine unto them, 2. Cor. 4. 4. And to say that faith is partly by nature and partly by grace, is the condemned heresie of the semi Pelagian: for we cannot so much as thinke a good thought of our selves, 2. Cor. 3. 5.

This understanding of the teaching of Pelagius, who denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all, i.e., he denied that either Adam or Christ were federal representatives, who denied the doctrine of original sin, who made sin a matter of imitation so that we become sinners when we sin, is the common property of the majority of the Western, Augustinian tradition.

Further, Perkins spoke for the entire Reformation when he distinguished between full-blown Pelagianism and “semi-Pelagianism” which admits the federal relationship and original sin but which tends to downplay the effects of sin. As Perkins observed, semi-Pelagianianism also affirmed the necessity of grace but just as it watered down the effects of sin so it weakened the necessity of and the power of grace. Like Pelagius, for the semi-Pelagians, which included some of Augustine’s opponents in the early 5th century and much of the medieval church, faith is “partly by nature and partly by grace.” The semi-Pelagian view is that grace helps but it is not decisive. The free exercise of the human will, or in some cases, the human intellect or affections is decisive and essential for faith, justification, and salvation. According to semi-Pelagianism, from a Pauline and Protestant point of view justification is no longer by grace alone, through faith (trusting) alone, but now through grace and works (our cooperation with grace).

There is, thus, a good lot of Pelagius in semi-Pelagianism. This is why the Synod of Dort condemned the Arminian (Remonstrant) doctrines of having brought “again out of hell the error of Pelagius.” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3). If one reads Pelagius’ commentary on Romans one sees that the Synod had a point. Pelagius and semi-Pelagius weren’t that far apart.

With that background in mind one can imagine how surprised I was to hear the claim that  it is semi-Pelagian to teach that faith is the instrument of mystical or existential union with Christ is “semi-Pelagian.”

Above we saw that, according to William Perkins, semi-Pelagianism asserts that the will (or other faculties) are able to operate in salvation partly on the basis of nature, i.e., they are not entirely dependent upon grace. In contrast, the Reformed argue that all humans are, by virtue of our union with the first Adam in his disobedience and sin (his violation of the covenant of works; see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7), dead in sins (Eph 2). In the providence of God our corrupted faculties are able to function toward civil good or civil righteousness but not for spiritual good or righteousness before God. This is the doctrine of total or extensive depravity (corruption). As the colonial Puritans put it: “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” As Pauline and Augustinians we understand that sin brings death. Hence, Paul teaches that we “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1).

The Reformed ordo salutis (the logical order of the application of redemption) has typically taught that God the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to give new life to the elect, and having done, gives them faith in Christ and through that faith resting and receiving Christ, regenerated believers are justified and united to Christ.

Nevertheless, despite this apparently simple and straightforward account of the faith, there seems to be genuine confusion about

  • whether there is or should be an ordo salutis;
  • what the Reformed ordo salutis is;
  • where, in the Reformed ordo salutis, the doctrine of union with Christ should appear.

Definitions
There is also apparently some confusion about what is meant by “union with Christ.” This is understandable because the doctrine has three or four aspects and, in contemporary discussion, all participants have not always been as cautious as necessary to make sure we are talking about the same aspect at the same time in the same way.

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) represented the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he spoke of the “federal union” that all the elect have with Christ (Systematic Theology, 448). This aspect of union is relative to the eternal, pre-temporal (before time) “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). According to Ps 110, John 17 and other passages, the Father gave to his Son a people and the Son volunteered to be their Mediator, their federal representative, and their Savior; i.e., to earn their salvation. This is one of the three or four aspects of our union with Christ. For more on this see the chapter on the “Covenant Before the Covenants” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

Berkhof wrote of a second aspect of our union with Christ, which he called the “union of life” (ibid). This union refers to the natural, organic relation that all humans have with the first Adam, who was the federal representative of all humanity (Rom 5). The corollary to our natural union with Adam, in whom we would have entered in glorious life had he (and we in him) obeyed the commandment of life (“you shall not eat”). In the covenant of redemption God constituted a union between the Son, who would be the Last Adam (1Cor 15) and his people. Implicitly, the Holy Spirit was a party to this covenant as that person who would apply redemption to the people given to the Son. The Second Adam (Rom 5), Jesus, fulfilled that covenant of works for all those whom he represented, for whom he died and for whose justification he was raised.

We might also speak of a third aspect of our union with Christ, which we might call decretal union, i.e., the union that exists between Christ and his people by virtue of God’s decree to elect, in Christ, some out of the mass of fallen humanity to redemption. Paul spoke to this aspect of our union with Christ when he wrote that we were chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the world (Eph 1). This aspect is, of course, a corollary to the federal union and the union of life mentioned above.

The last aspect is mystical union (or sometimes referred to as “existential union”) and it refers to the subjective application of redemption purposed from eternity in the decree, covenanted among the Trinitarian person in the pactum salutis, accomplished by Christ in his active and suffering obedience, and applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. Mystical union is, as Berkhof put it, that “intimate, vital, and spiritual” connection “between Christ and his people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation” (Systematic Theology, 449).

Ordo Salutis
The debate that has arisen in the last few decades has raised questions about whether we should speak of an ordo salutis. Some contemporary writers have called for us to make a “decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking.” Such a proposal, however, is quite radical in comparison to the Reformed tradition. The existence and necessity of a logical order of the application of redemption seems clear in Romans 8:29–30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

When we speak of a “logical order” all that is meant is this: God’s decree of predestination is logically prior to vocation or effectual calling. Thus, those whom God the Spirit effectually calls, are the elect. Those who believe and through faith alone are justified are those whom God has elected in Christ and effectually called. The sanctified and glorified are those whom God elected in Christ, effectually called by the Spirit, and justified through faith alone.

That’s the ordo salutis or the logical order of the application of redemption. This is why all the Reformed theologians since the beginning of the Reformation have taught this basic order of the application of redemption. Indeed, the entire Reformation conflict between Rome and the Protestants may be said to have been over the logical order of the application of redemption. The medieval Western church taught and the Roman communion teaches that justification is God’s recognition of our sanctification through the infusion of medicinal grace, through “charity poured into the heart” and cooperation with grace, the combination of which is said to create inherent justice.

The Reformation, however, taught and teaches that God justifies sinners by his unmerited favor (grace) on the basis of Christ’s perfect (condign) righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us and received through Spirit-wrought faith alone. The Reformation was built upon the logical order of the application of redemption taught by Paul in Romans.

Covenant Theology
Thus far everything seems fairly clear. The historic Reformed view is opposed to semi-Pelagianism and on the Reformation doctrine of election (shared by all the magisterial Reformers) and justification sola gratia, sola fide. It is built on the Pauline order of the application of redemption and a particular understanding of the history of redemption and covenant theology taught by the Reformed theologians and reflected to varying degrees in the Reformed confessions.

Whence the difficulty and confusion? Part of the explanation lies in the discomfort that some began to have with traditional covenant theology. The traditional Reformed view of mystical union, as represented by Berkhof, is built upon the traditional covenant theology (covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace). That scheme was subject to criticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Lutherans, Socinians, and the Remonstrants (Arminians).  In the twentieth century, that scheme also came under sustained assault by Barthians and by the modern “biblical theology” movement which, unlike the older and more orthodox biblical theologians (e.g., Caspar Olevianus, Johannes Cocceius, Geerhardus Vos, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray) thought of dogmatic or systematic theology as an enemy of a true account of the faith. They sought to overcome traditional distinctions and spoke disparagingly of “scholastic” or “systematic” theology as derived from ideas foreign to Scripture and imposed upon Scripture. There was even a proposal by a notable Reformed writer, in the early 1970s, to replace the categories and vocabulary of systematic theology which those of “biblical theology.”

Others, under the influence of the “biblical theology” movement (dominated in the 20th century by Barthians), came to reject the covenant of redemption (before time) and the covenant of works before the fall. In this scheme the covenant of grace swallowed up everything. According to G. C. Berkouwer (1903–96), this is what happened in the theology of Karl Barth (d. 1968). The decree of election, which seems to have included everyone) obliterated the distinction between law and gospel, and between the covenants of works and grace. Berkouwer himself came to reject the covenant of redemption as a speculative assault on the doctrine of the Trinity. That criticism has been echoed in contemporary, otherwise confessional, Reformed circles. Thus, two parts of the foundation of the historic and confessional Reformed understanding of union with Christ were weakened and the way was opened for new proposals based on either a rejection of the ordo salutis or a re-ordering it.

Where Does Faith Fit?

That faith which secures eternal life; which unites us to Christ as living members of his body; which makes us the sons of God; which interests us in all the benefits of redemption; which works by love, and is fruitful in good works; is founded , not on the external or the moral evidence of the truth, but on the testimony of the Spirit with an by the truth to the renewed soul (Systematic Theology, 3.68).

…The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures is union with Christ. We are in him by faith. There is indeed a union between Christ and his people, founded on the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in the counsels of eternity. We are, therefore, said to be in Him before the foundation of the world.

…But it was also, as we learn from the Scriptures, included in the stipulations of that covenant, that his people, so far as adults are concerned, should not receive the saving benefits of that covenant until they were united to Him by a voluntary act of faith. They are ‘by nature the children of wrath, even as others.’ (Eph. ii.3) They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, as to believe in Christ are, therefore , in the Scriptures, convertible forms of expression. They mean the same thing, and therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ” (Ibid, 3.104)

So says Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who taught at Old Princeton for about fifty years, on the relation between faith and union. We should note that he distinguished between different aspects of our union with Christ. In the quotation above, he named explicitly “federal union” and distinguished implicitly between what we might call “decretal union” and federal union. He also connected his doctrine of mystical union to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (see the previous post).

His main focus, and the aspect of union in view in this series, however, was mystical (or existential) union. According to Hodge, faith, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites us to Christ, i.e., the mystical aspect of union is an effect of faith but its relation to faith is so close that the one may be said to be the other.

We should also observe that he described faith as a voluntary act, i.e., as an act of the will. To be sure, Hodge incorporated other faculties of the soul in the act of faith, but he did describe it as voluntary. Was his doctrine of mystical union semi-Pelagian? It would have been had he taught that we believe before we are regenerated (given new life) or if he had written that regeneration (so defined) is the result of faith but he did not. In the section of his Systematic Theology preceding faith he taught that faith is a consequence of regeneration.

In Hodge’s ordo salutis (the logical order of the Spirit’s application of redemption to the elect) mystical (or existential) union is not said to exist until faith. Faith is not a result of mystical union. Rather, mystical union is, as Hodge said, “the first effect of faith.”

“The proximate effect of this union, and consequently the second effect of faith is justification.” In Hodge’s ordo it is those who are mystically united to Christ by faith who are justified. “Faith,” he wrote, “is the condition on which God promises in the covenant of redemption, to impute unto men the righteousness of Christ. As soon, therefore, as they believe, they cannot be condemned. They are clothed with a righteousness that answers all the demands of justice” (Ibid, 3.105).

I would be happier had Hodge reversed these order of justification and union since, Hodge’s order has it that it is those who are as yet unjustified who are considered to be in mystical union with Christ but the point of this series to gain some clarity about the instrumentality of faith in Reformed theology relative to union. It should be clear that, in Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes mystical union.

What Is The Nature Of Our Mystical Union?
William Perkins on Mystical Union:

The benefits which we receive by this Mystical union are manifold. For it is the ground of the conveyance of all grace. The first is, that by means hereof every Christian as he is a Christian or a man regenerate, hath his beginning and being in Christ, howsoever as he is a man he hath his being and subsisting in himself, as Paul saith, 1. Cor. 1. 30. Ye are of God in Christ. And, Eph. 5. 30. Ye are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.(An exposition of the symbole or creed of the apostles, according to the tenour of the scripture, and the consent of orthodox Fathers of the Church, 1595; Works 300.)

His first job under this heading is to sort out the nature of our mystical union, i.e., the nature of the connection between the believer and Christ and its importance. We cannot benefit from Christ’s work until we are mystically united to him. This was Calvin’s point in Institutes 3.1. “Regenerate” here apparently refers to the Spirit’s work of raising to life the spiritually dead.

How (will some say) can this be? After this manner: The comparison is taken from our first parents. Eve was made of a rib taken out of Adams side, he being cast into a slumber: this being done, Adam awaked and said, This now is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Gen. 2. 23. Christ was nailed on the cross, and his most precious blood was shed, and out of it arise and spring all true Christians: that is, out of the merit of Christ’s death and passion, whereby they become new creatures.

Our mystical union with Christ is intimate. It is interesting in this section, however, that Perkins did not say, as we might have expected him to say, that the Spirit is the source of union. Of course it’s true that the Spirit raises the spiritually dead and grants them new life. Here, however, he turns to the work of Christ for us before turning to his work in us. We are new creatures because of Christ’s death.

Secondly, every one that believes in Christ by reason of this union hath an unspeakable prerogative: for hereby he is first united to Christ, and by reason thereof is also joined to the whole Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, and shall have eternal fellowship with them.

Were this text being published now there would be comma after “Christ” in order to make his logic clear. We should understand Perkins to be saying, “everyone who believes in Christ, by virtue of this union, has a great benefit: union with Christ, and thus with the whole Trinity.”

In other words, when Perkins thought of the source of our spiritual life, he connected it closely to the objective work of Christ for us. When he thought of coming into possession of union with Christ, he thought of Spirit-wrought faith. We have the intimate union (and communion) with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Thirdly, sundry men, specially Papists, deride the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness: thinking it is absurd, that a man should be just by that righteousness which is inherent in the person of Christ: as if we would say, that one man may live by the soul of another: or be learned by the learning of another. But here we may see, that it hath sufficient foundation.

The importance of the forensic, objective aspect of salvation and justification appears again. Notice how that, as soon as Perkins thinks of the application, he turns back to that which is applied. Notice too that he’s concerned that the reader understand that this is a Protestant doctrine. The ground of our acceptance with God is not our union with Christ— Bernard of Clairveaux had a strong doctrine of union with Christ but he did not have a Protestant doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s (condign) merit.

Implicitly here too is his answer to the frequent criticism that the Protestants teach justification on the basis of a “legal fiction.” Perkins was saying, in effect, “Nonsense!” The ground of our justification is not fiction. It’s the only actual, real, condign merit that has ever been achieved: that of Jesus. By faith we are united to that Jesus and thus benefit by what he accomplished for us.

For there is a most near and straight union between Christ and all that believe in him: and in this union Christ with all his benefits according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, is made ours really: and therefore we may stand just before God by his righteousness; it being indeed his, because it is in him as in a subject; yet so, as it is also ours; because it is given unto us of God.

The medieval and Tridentine Roman church taught (falsely) that we are accepted by God on the basis of the Spirit’s work in us and our cooperation with that grace. The ground of our acceptance with God was said to be “inherent righteousness” (iustitia inhaerens) or sometimes “charity poured forth into our hearts.” This is what some Romanist apologists are now calling the “Agape” model, as if exchanging the Latin “caritas” (charity) for the Greek Agape makes a substantial difference.

In contrast to the Romish doctrine, Perkins wanted to be clear that, relative to acceptance with God, Christ’s righteousness is truly extra nos (outside us) but he himself does not remain so. Again, one hears Calvin saying: If Christ remains outside of us, he is of no benefit to us. By virtue of Sprit-wrought union with Christ, we become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

On the other hand, in some contemporary accounts of mystical union it almost seems as if mystical union is everything and faith has become a mere technicality to be affirmed formally and then locked away. Having fulfilled its function faith goes away and mystical union now is said to do what for Perkins and most other Reformed writers faith was thought to do. In Perkins, however, we do not find that mystical union swallows up or replaces the forensic doctrine. Rather, Spirit-wrought faith and mystical (Spirit-wrought) union complement each other and faith plays an essential role in justification, in union, and in the Christian life that flows from our mystical union with Christ.

What Does The Church Say?
William Perkins taught that believers are given new life by the Spirit and by the same Spirit given faith and through that faith united to Christ. It is particularly useful to be aware of Perkins as we come to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

It is good for us to close this essay by considering the Westminster Shorter Catechism since as important as our theologians are, we do not confess their work. We confess God’s Word as summarized by the churches in the confessions and catechisms. The Shorter Catechism has a clear survey of the nature of union with Christ. It should clarify remaining questions.

Since the mid-1970s there has been a number of Reformed theologians who have sought to revise the Reformed doctrines of justification and union with Christ. Some have proposed the doctrine that sinners are accepted with God through faith and works. Yes, it has been put that baldly. “What?” You might object, “Didn’t we settle that in the Reformation?” Yes, for those of us who still believe what the Reformation believed, yes it is settled. Formally, the doctrine of the Reformed churches, as summarized by the confessions and catechisms, has not changed but under the surface, as a matter of history, that revision was accepted and defended by more than a few as the genuine “Reformed” doctrine (as distinct from the ostensibly, allegedly defective Lutheran doctrine). When objections were raised the view was reformulated to teach acceptance with God through “faithfulness.” Nothing was changed, however. The revised doctrine taught (and teaches) that we are justified through trust and obedience or cooperation with grace.

As part of this revision, it was proposed that we are brought into a conditional union with Christ by baptism and that we remain in union with Christ by cooperation with grace, i.e., by works. In this way, our perseverance and our assurance of salvation was placed in jeopardy in the name of achieving a truly and distinctly “Reformed” doctrine of justification (and union with Christ).

As we’ve seen, some have proposed a revision of the doctrine of union that disregards the idea of an ordo salutis arguing that a proper doctrine of union with Christ renders the idea a logical order of salvation invalid. All of Christ’s benefits, it is claimed, flow from existential, mystical union.

Thus, it behooves us to notice the logical and pedagogical order of salvation relative to mystical union with Christ in the catechism. In the questions leading up to this section the catechism has been summarizing the accomplishment of redemption by Christ. Questions 24–28 account for Christ’s triplex munus (threefold office): prophet, priest, and king.

Question 29 asks,

How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?

We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

As we saw in Perkins, in the Shorter Catechism, redemption is accomplished outside of us (extra nos), for us (pro nobis, by Christ alone (solo Christo) and applied to us the Holy Spirit.

Those who benefit from Christ’s work do so by “effectual application” worked by the Spirit. How does this work? The adjective “effectual” signals that we’re thinking about that which the Spirit does, as distinct from what is offered generally to all in the preaching of the Gospel.

Question 30 answers

The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling (emphasis added).

So far there is no question about who applies Christ and his benefits to us: the Holy Spirit. The next question is how the Spirit applies Christ’s benefits to us. The answer is “by working faith in us.” In the context of the current discussions and confusion about the doctrine of union with Christ we must appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the Shorter Catechism. Once more: The Holy Spirit applies the redemption that Christ purchased, earned for us “by working faith in us.”

According to some accounts of mystical or existential union with Christ, we might have expected to see the catechism say, “through [mystical] union with Christ” but that is not what the catechism says. Union with Christ is not the instrument through which we apprehend Christ and his benefits, faith is.

There is a second aspect to this answer. There is a subordinate clause beginning with the word “thereby.” The clause says: “thereby uniting us to Christ.” To what does the “thereby” refer? Faith. How does the Spirit apply redemption? By faith. What else does faith do? It unites us to Christ. Not only is faith the instrument of justification it is also the instrument of union with Christ.

Remember, according to Perkins, there are multiple aspects of union with Christ. There isn’t any genuine disagreement over the decretal union or the federal (representative) union with Christ. The aspect over which there has been confusion has been mystical or existential union with Christ.

This is how the following questions characterize and describe the work of the Spirit in effectual calling:

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

The Spirit convicts, renews, enlightens, and renews the heretofore spiritually dead, unregenerate will. The Spirit is said to “persuade and enable” the renewed faculties to “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” That embrace is faith. Those who’ve been given new life, who’ve been given faith, who by grace have embraced Christ through faith alone, receive “justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.”

Finally, it should be noted again that we have been considering the logical, not temporal order of salvation. This discussion has to do with how we should think and speak (and teach) about the work of the Spirit and the instrumental role of faith in justification and sanctification. We should think and speak of the Spirit working through the “due use of the ordinary means,” i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ’s actively obedient suffering, death, and victorious resurrection. We should think and speak of the Spirit creating new life in the elect, giving faith to those renewed, and through that faith conferring union with Christ, justification, adoption, etc.

Contrary to the way some are speaking today, faith is not simply the instrument of justification, it is also the instrument of union and if we are going to characterize the Christian life as a life lived in union and communion with Christ, then we must also characterize it as a life lived by faith. It is not that faith has only one function and that it fulfills its one function in justification and then is locked away in a box for safe keeping. If faith is the instrument of union and union is of the essence of the Christ life then faith is of the essence of sanctification just as it is of the essence of justification.

Historically, some Reformed folk have been tempted to place predestination in the foreground of Reformed theology. Our best theologians and certainly our confessional documents tend to treat predestination as a source of explanation for why things are the way they are but it remains in the background. For example, Theodore Beza (like Calvin) and the Reformed orthodox typically discouraged believers from asking, “Am I elect?” That’s the wrong question because we cannot know, in the abstract, if we are elect. It would require knowledge of God’s decree and such knowledge is hidden from us (Deut 29:29). The question we should ask is: “Do I believe?” The logic is thus: Only the elect believe, I believe, therefore I’m elect. That’s the Reformed faith.

Our theologians and ecclesiastical documents tend to treat mystical union in a similar way. Rather than asking, “Do I have mystical union with Christ?”—again, how, in the abstract would we know?—we should ask, “Do I believe?” The Reformed faith teaches: Believers have union with Christ. I believe. Therefore I have union with Christ. If we start with mystical union or if we focus on it we tend to lose Christ, who is the object of faith and the source of our life. After all, the point of mystical union is to connect us to Christ not to call attention to itself.

Justified Through Our Faithfulness?

Introduction
As I mentioned in an earlier post in Romans 2:13 Paul writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV).1 The chapter begins with matter of judgment. Since 1:18 Paul has been prosecuting the Gentiles on the basis of their natural knowledge of God, which we suppress. Because of the effects of sin all our faculties and desires are corrupted. Because we all know the moral law of God in our consciences we are without excuse before God. Chapter 2 begins with a reiteration of this law principle: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (ESV). Now he turns his attention to Jews, those who had received the old covenant, the Mosaic law, the national covenant (Romans 9:4–5; 3:1–3; ESV). The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them, the Mosaic law. God had exercised forbearance with the Israelites but because of the hardness of their hearts (vv.4–5) they are storing up judgment instead. Judgment will be rendered according to “works” (v 6). Those who seek “for glory and honor” by patience will receive eternal life (v. 7). Those who do not “obey the truth” (v. 8) will be judged. Because God is impartial, both Jews and Greeks will be judged according to their works (v. 9–11). Those who sinned under the Mosaic law will be judged by that standard and those who sinned under the natural law by that standard (v.12). The rest of the chapter after v. 13 continues in the same vein. The Gentiles have the substance of the moral law written on their conscience (vv. 14–15). The Jews, who boast about having the Mosaic law, will be judged by the standard of the law given at Sinai (vv. 16–29). Thus, when Paul contrasts “hearers” and “doers” it is hearers and doers of the law. Both Jews and Gentiles are under substantially the same law: love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as himself (Matt 22:37–40) but, as Paul shows in chapter 3, no one does this. In chapter 5 he explains why this is, because, as the New England Puritans put it, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The only reference to the gospel in this section is the broad use of the word, the promise that God will judge law breakers. There is no good news for sinners here.

The magisterial Protestant interpretation of Romans 1–3 was that these chapters were largely a presentation of the law, with the intent of demonstrating to Jews and Gentiles the impossibility of sinners of meeting the standard of righteousness. As quoted in the earlier post, Calvin’s interpretation reflects this reading:

They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a sophistry: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law.

For Calvin, this passage is law, an expression of God’s righteous demand. Anyone who would present himself to God on the basis of the law must actually keep the law. The only thing that satisfies justice is actual, complete, perfect fulfillment of the law. The slightest disobedience to God’s holy law merits only one thing: condemnation. Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section of Romans.

In light of its overwhelming thematic and conceptual unity, in light of the Reformation reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, it is difficult to see how or why any confessional Protestant could or would read this section differently but in 1978 a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), Norman Shepherd, in the midst of what would become a seven-year long controversy over whether a Reformed Christian may teach justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness” proposed 34 theses for discussion and debate. Among them was this one:

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 3:21; James 1:22-25).

This reading dispensed with the historic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) distinction between the two principles of law and gospel. Instead, this reading proposed that, in Romans 2:13, Paul was not prosecuting sinners on the basis of the law, that he was not pressing the righteous and holy demands of God upon them to teach them their sins and misery and to drive them to Christ. Rather, according to this re-reading, Paul was speaking of Christians who will so cooperate with grace as to be sufficiently righteous as to be accepted by God was a radical re-reading of this passage.

This radical re-reading of Romans 2:13 continues to reverberate in some Reformed circles to the present day.

The Problem With Progressive Justification
What has been neglected is a 1978 proposal that, at the judgment, “faithful disciples” will be justified before God through their faithfulness.  The current controversy over sanctification is, however, part of an argument that began long before 1978. It has its roots in the late 1520s when Johann Agricola (1494–1566) denounced the doctrine that God’s holy moral law governs the life of the Christian, i.e., what we know as the “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis). In the confessional Lutheran (e.g., in the Book of Concord) and Reformed understanding of justification, salvation, and the Christian life no Christian is “under the law” with respect to his acceptance with God (justification). That cannot be. Paul was repeatedly explicit about this:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:15–16; ESV).

and

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10–14; ESV)

and

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28; ESV)

Much of the medieval church had concluded and Council of Trent confirmed a doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification by medicinal grace (divine and semi-divine substances as distinct from divine favor or approval) and cooperation with grace.

At Trent, Session 6 (1547) Canon 11, Rome declared:

If any one says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

According to Rome, in the sacraments, the Christian is endued with a certain power with which he must cooperate. Justification is through grace and cooperation with grace. Canon 9 made clear the necessity of cooperation with grace unto justification:

If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

She continued by denouncing the pan-Protestant definition of faith in the act of justification as “confidence in the divine mercy.” No, according to Rome, faith justifies because it works and through working. Faith does what it does not because of its object but because of what it is, because it is formed by love (fides formata caritate). According to Rome, Christ has done his part, on the cross and in baptism, of making salvation possible but we must do our part. This remains the Roman doctrine of justification in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1987ff). To a man the magisterial, confessional Protestants rejected this scheme as no different from “the works of the law” denounced by the Apostle Paul. The Protestant churches confessed the same.

The theological unity on this point, however, did not prevent all difficulties. In the 1550s the Lutheran theologian George Major (1502–74) proposed that good works are “necessary for retaining salvation.” There is nothing new about the NPP/FV doctrine of “in by grace, stay in through works.” The Reformed categorically rejected that doctrine in favor of teaching that sinners are justified (declared righteous) out of God’s favor alone (sola gratia), received through faith alone (sola fide) resting in, receiving, trusting in  Christ, his finished work for us, and in his promises alone. New life and true faith necessarily results in sanctity, which, in turn, produces good works as fruit and evidence of true faith and justification. When faced with the potential modifying this doctrine  the Synod of Dort replied in effect: We get in by grace and we stay in by grace.

Nevertheless, some Reformed Protestants have sometimes given in to the temptation to reintroduce a version of the “works of the law,” i.e., grace and cooperation with grace, into Reformed theology. Sometimes it comes in the front door, as in the case of Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.” Sometimes, however, justification by grace and cooperation with grace has been reintroduced through the backdoor, as it were, by distinguishing explicitly or implicitly between an initial justification and a final justification. In this scheme sinners are said to be justified initially, in this life, by grace alone (sola gratia), sola fide (through faith alone) but finally justified, in the same legal sense as in the first instance, also partly on the basis of inherent righteousness and sanctity produced through union with Christ. Proponents of this approach limit the function of faith to forensic, legal justification in this life. Once we are justified talk of faith recedes and “existential union with Christ” becomes more prominent. Justification and sanctification are said to be logically twin benefits issuing from existential (formerly known as mystical) union with Christ initiated by God at regeneration. In this view there is and can be no logical order between justification and sanctification. At least one proponent (though we can hardly think he is alone in his sentiments) has argued that Reformed Christians must “move on” from “ordo salutis thinking.” Another critic of the traditional (and arguably confessional) Reformed view has labelled as “semi-Pelagian” the notion that, in the application of redemption, in regeneration (defined as awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life) the Holy Spirit creates or endows the elect with new life and with that new life the gift of faith, and through faith creates a mystical union with Christ and his believer. This would seem to the doctrine and intent of the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it says,

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?

A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. [emphasis added]

The catechism’s “thereby” would seem to signal that Spirit-wrought faith and not regeneration per se is the “instrument” of our existential, mystical union with Christ in the application of redemption. In other words, according to the catechism, existential or mystical union (as distinct from that union that may said to exist in the decree, from all eternity, and that federal union that may be said to have existed in Christ’s acting for us in his obedient life and death) is unavoidably part of a logical order. It is the regenerated who believe and it is believers who are united to Christ (and that faith is the gift of God) and is believers united to Christ who are justified.

Two Stage Justification And Double Justification
Sometimes proponents of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification have appealed to the language of “double justification” and implied that the Reformed, under that rubric, taught a two-stage doctrine of justification. The evidence does not support this suggestion. When the Lutherans and the Reformed wrote of a “double justification” (duplex iustitia) they were not establishing either two grounds of standing before God (imputed righteousness and inherent righteousness)—that was the Romanist view advocated at Regensburg (1541)—nor were they imply that there are two stages to justification, initial and final. Rather, they were distinguishing between justification as a legal, forensic act, whereby God declares those who are intrinsically unjust to be legally just on the basis of Christ’s condign merit imputed to them and the process of progressive sanctification whereby the consequences of that justification are worked out gradually, graciously in the lives of believers as they are conformed to Christ in mortification (putting to death the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man). This doctrine was effectively that taught by Calvin as the “twofold grace of God” (duplex gratia Dei) and by Olevianus and others as the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of the covenant of grace: justification and sanctification. According to Calvin, Olevianus and others, the same Spirit who raised us to life, who gave us the grace of faith, who, through that faith united us to Christ, is also at work in us sanctifying us. This is why they had no need of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification and, instead, distinguished between justification and vindication. We are justified in this life and shall be vindicated in the next. This is how Luther and the rest of the magisterial Protestants related Paul and James. Paul was speaking of a forensic, legal justification and James, in chapter 2, was speaking of evidence of faith or vindication of the claim to be a believer.

Ordo Salutis And A Two Stage Sequence
In the course of the original (or first stage of the) Shepherd controversy (1974–81) many informal documents were created. There was a faculty report and responses to the faculty report and addenda to those documents. There were also public letters to supporters of the seminary and responses to those letters and then finally a report by the board of trustees. Not all of the documents are dated so it’s not completely certain when they were drafted or circulated. I believe the document below to be from 1978 but cannot be completely certain. This document, written in defense of Shepherd, shows the beginnings of what would become a more fully developed approach to Romans 2:13 in which it was interpreted not as an expression of the pedagogical use the law (sometimes denominated the first use, sometimes denominated the second) but as an indication that there are two stages of justification, initial and final, and that Romans 2:13 contains a promise of final acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity.

I quote extensively from the document (pages 5–7). The only omissions are internal outline numbering and internal references to other parts of the document on the grounds that to retain these would be confusing to the reader. Nothing of substance in this section of the paper has been omitted. The document was signed but I omit the name in order to focus on the substance of the issue.

The author writes:

The Roman Catholic notion of faith formed by love and other serious misunderstandings of this verse [Gal 5:6] must be recognized and avoided….Faith justifies only as it rests in Christ and his finished righteousness, not as it looks too its working in love. Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from, parallel to, or beyond that of faith. The sole instrument of justification is faith, from which working through love flows [sic] as the necessary and integral fruit or manifestation. Where the relationship between faith and its working (good works) is not expressed in this or some other equivalent way, the unique function (instrumentality) of faith for justification and so too, then, Christ’s finished righteousness as the exclusive ground of justification threatened to be obscured or denied.

This seems to be a fairly robust affirmation of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone through faith alone. The subordinate clause, “from which working through love flows” is not entirely clear grammatically but the intent seems to be to say that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone will produce the fruit of sanctification.

There is, however, an interesting qualification that should not be missed. “Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from or parallel to or beyond that of faith.” Though the statement denies the Roman doctrine of “faith formed by love” it seems as if the definition of faith offered here is not far from it. Certainly we should agree with the author that sanctification and consequent good works do flow as fruit of justification and union with Christ but what is the result of saying that sanctification and good works are a constituent of faith in the act of justification? There is a certain degree of ambiguity. Since this was an informal document perhaps we shouldn’t press it too hard and yet this language does suggest that we will want to pay attention to what follows.

Next, the author appeals to the example of Abraham:

The experience of Abraham implies that as long as the believers earthly life continues, perseverance In the state of justification (from which he can never fall, WCF, 11:5) is essential to his being justified (cf. J. Edwards, works (1974), 1:640–642).

The citation of Edwards is fascinating. As anyone who has studied Edwards’ doctrine of justification it is fraught with difficulties to say the least. A recent volume sought to exonerate his doctrine of justification but, so far as I was able to tell, it never made reference to the article that highlighted the great difficulty in the first place: Thomas A. Schafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith,” Church History 20 (1951): 55–67. It may not be possible to say exactly what Edwards’ doctrine of justification was or that he had a single, coherent doctrine of justification. For more on this see the relevant section in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

More significantly, the author appeals to Abraham’s perseverance (which was mixed at best) not as fruit and evidence of his faith (despite the manifold evidences to the contrary—he was a serial liar and doubter. Abraham was a perfectionist’s nightmare) as “essential to his being justified.” Now the picture is clearer. The Canons of Dort (1619) want us to think and say that perseverance is a fruit of our election not condition (to which the Remonstrants added the qualification “foreseen”; CD First Head of Doctrine, rejection of errors, para. 5). Nowhere does the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 60) include perseverance as essential to justification. The justified will persevere but they do so by God’s grace as an outworking or a consequence of election and justification. Obedience is essential to perseverance and if perseverance is essential to justification have we not made obedience essential to justification?

This formulation would seem to contradict the express teaching of WCF 11.1 that believers are justified

not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God [emphasis added]

Perseverance is wrought in us but it is an “evangelical obedience” that attends justification, that gives evidence of justification but is no part of the ground, instrument, or even essence of justification.

The document continues:

Paul and James. The much-debated question of the relationship between James 2:14ff. and the relevant passages in Paul can be addressed briefly in the light of the preceding discussion, particularly in view of their common appeal to Genesis 15:6 and the experience of Abraham. The two are not in conflict. Paul looks at Abraham’s faith as it rests in the promise (the promised seed, righteousness) and so receives the forgiveness of sin. James looks at the same faith as it is active and working (2:22); out of trust in the same promise he offered up his only son (seed), Isaac (vs. 21). That James calls this “justification by works” is because he sees Abraham’s deed only as the manifestation and fruitage of his faith, the faith that continues to rest in the promised seed. The justification of which James speaks is not in place of nor a repetition of justification in Paul’s sense (the once-for-all imputation of Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness of sins). Rather, the former, with a view to the persevering of faith working through love, is the reconfirmation or revalidation of the latter. The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject. It is not necessary to insist on a demonstrative, as distinct from or excluding a declarative, sense in James.

We should agree with this account right up to the penultimate sentence. “The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject.” The author continues by denying that the justification to which James refers is “declarative” as distinct from Paul’s “forensic” (legal). If by these two sentences the author means to blur the distinction between a forensic (legal, declarative act) and justification in the sense of vindication, i.e., the recognition of what is the case, then we should dissent dissent strongly. James refers to our works as evidence of our claim to faith. This is vindication. Paul refers to God’s declaration that sinners are declared to be righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith alone. These are two distinct things that should not be muddled.

Justification and Sanctification. Justification and sanctification are different, yet they are inseparable (WLC, 77).

They differ in that they address distinctly different exigencies. Justification deals with the guilt and condemnation of sin and is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the pardoning of sin; sanctification deals with the corrupting power of sin and the production of righteousness and the subduing of sin within the believer by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

They are inseparable in that they both inhere and derive from the believer’s vital union with Christ (WLC, 69).

We should agree with the first paragraph and question and qualify the second. There is a double benefit of the covenant of grace, a double benefit of our vital union with Christ. Amen. There is, however, a logical order to the benefits. Without being too graphic consider the birth of twins. Ordinarily, apart from a C-section, twins do not emerge from the womb simultaneously. They emerge in order. Now, that is a chronological sequence. With the double benefit we do not have a temporal, chronological sequence but a logical sequence. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. I contend that the denial of the logical order has contributed to the original controversy and continues to reverberate in the current confusion.

While it is equally important to distinguish justification and sanctification from each other as it is not to separate them, they are properly distinguished only as their inseparability in Christ is appreciated (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30). Although sanctification in its progressive aspect obviously follows justification in time, the distinction between them is not well expressed by saying, out of concern to safeguard the purity of justification, that it is the basis of sanctification, or by speaking of the priority of justification to sanctification. Much better is the model proposed by Calvin (institutes, 3:11:6): Christ, the sole source of righteousness, is the sun from which proceeds, without confusion or separation, or relative priority both light (justification) and heat (sanctification).

Here we should agree with the author as to what the issue is even as we disagree with his prescription and his analysis of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ. Since this controversy there has been considerable historical work by Cornelis Venema, Todd Billings, and Richard Muller, to name but three who’ve reached quite different conclusions about Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and the duplex gratia. My own research into Caspar Olevianus’ doctrine of the duplex beneficium reached similar conclusions regarding his teaching that parallels those of Billings, Venema, and Muller regarding Calvin. More recently, John Fesko has argued the historical case for the logical priority of justification to sanctification.

The temporal sequence is not in question. We should, however, affirm the logical priority of justification to progressive sanctification. ” We have prima facie evidence in Romans 8:30 for thinking this way:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30; ESV).

It is the elect who are effectually called. It is those who are called who are justified. It is the justified who shall be glorified and glorification is the consummation of progressive sanctification in this life. In Paul’s brief order of salvation here sanctification is represented by and subsumed under glorification.

As the argument unfolds the connection to a two-stage doctrine of justification becomes clearer:

Justification and final judgment.

A pervasive strand of New Testament teaching is that at the end of this age, at Christ’s return all men, including believers, will appear before God (Christ) for judgment (e.g., Matt. 16:27; 25:31–46; John 5:27–29; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:6, 16; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27; 2 Pet. 3:7; 1 John 4:17).

While some of these passages neighbor for to the differing rewards granted to believers relative to each other, others unmistakably describe, not merely relative degrees a blessing for believers, but a judgment involving all men and in which the issue for all including believers, is the ultimate outcome of either internal life or eternal destruction (E. G. , Matt. 25,: 31ff.; John 5:29; Rom. 2:5–8).

While, in the case of believers, the final judgment is not called “justification” (although see Matt. 12:36, 37 and probably, too, Rom. 2:13; cf. Also the future “hope of righteousness,” Gal. 5:5), the essential features involved—a judicial transaction issuing in an irreversible verdict with eternal consequences—are precisely those at stake in Paul’s doctrine of justification. The positive outcome of the final judgment is in fact, if not in name, a justification.

What was implied and suggested above is now more explicit: a two-stage justification. In this case, however, we have observed that the distinction between them is not sharp. We have seen affirmations of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and significant qualifications of the definition of faith and justification which, if allowed to stand unchecked, would be fatal to the biblical and Reformed doctrine of justification.

The final justification envisioned in the section quoted above is distinct from the initial justification but continuous with it. Where the traditional doctrine has sinners justified once for all in this life and that justification vindicated at the judgment, this re-casting clear has them justified a second a second time.

Believers Are Already Justified
Above we began looking at a document, from 1978, which proposed a two-stage doctrine of justification. It recognized that there is some risk, some difficulty, in speaking of a present justification and a future justification. Nevertheless, the document contends that biblical text requires us to speak this way.

The question of the relationship, for believers, of justification already received to the final judgment, although difficult, is unavoidable; cannot be pushed aside, out of the proper concern to protect the once-for-all, definitive character of justification, by saying that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. The unavoidability of this question in the case of Paul, especially, is playing. Paul’s gospel is eschatological through and through. Justification is the verdict of the final judgment already pronounced on the believer, in view of the eschatological significance of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. age. Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 161–166). For Paul, justification by faith is a piece of “realized eschatology,” demanding to be related in it’s organic ties to the still future eschatological aspects of his gospel.

The document contends that we cannot say that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. Since it uses quotation marks we are left to assume that someone, in the course of the discussion, used this language but it rightly responds that the two are related, that justification sola gratia, sola fide, is an eschatological (final) declaration realized in time and space. The question before us is whether a doctrine of a two-stage justification preserves or jeopardizes the definitive, once-for-all character of justification.

The final judgment, with its dual outcome of eternal life or death, is a judgment according to works [Emphasis original] (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10) [emphasis original].

In 2009 Rick Phillips gave five reasons why we should not say that we are justified “according to works.”

      • Scripture teaches that justification through faith alone is not provisional in character but utterly definitive in securing God’s righteous verdict.
      • The idea of a future justification of believers suggests that Christians must stand before the Lord with respect to their sinful deeds.
      • According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works.
      • Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. He explains:

Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law – the Torah – saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it. John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.”

The doctrine of judgment “according to works” does not seem to be used extensively by the Reformed Churches in their confessions. It does not occur in the Belgic Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), or the Westminster Standards (1648). The Scots Confession (1560) chapter 25 does use it:

Yea, the Eternal, our God, shall stretch out his hand on the dust, and the dead shall arise incorruptible, and in the very substance of the selfsame flesh which every man now bears, to receive according to their works, glory or punishment. Such as now delight in vanity, cruelty, filthiness, superstition, or idolatry, shall be condemned to the fire unquenchable, in which those who now serve the devil in all abominations shall be tormented forever, both in body and in spirit. But such as continue in well doing to the end, boldly confessing the Lord Jesus, shall receive glory, honor, and immortality, we constantly believe, to reign forever in life everlasting with Christ Jesus, to whose glorified body all his chosen shall be made like, when he shall appear again in judgment and shall render up the Kingdom to God his Father, who then shall be and ever shall remain, all in all things, God blessed forever. To whom, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, now and ever. Amen.

It is not clear that this section of the Scots Confession is teaching the same thing proposed in the (1978) document since the confession does not distinguish between two stages of justification nor does it equate the judgment according to works to justification.

The document continues:

In the case of believers, the final judgment (justification) does not involve a different principle than justification by faith, as if the sinner is first justified by his faith in the righteousness of Christ and then, at the final judgment on the basis of his works. Such a construction would bring Paul into contradiction with himself and destroy the assurance ministered by his doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, from beginning to end (final judgment) the ground of acceptance with God and his justifying judgment is the finished righteousness of Christ.

This passage is interesting because it addresses one of the concerns animating this series on Romans 2:13. It’s interesting that the document recognizes the possibility that the reader might reach this conclusion. Has the document pushed a boulder down the hill—in other words, is there a good, logical reason to prevent the reader from drawing the conclusion the document hopes to avoid?

In the case of believers, the final judgment according to works is the culmination of the justification by works of which James speaks. “Works” in this instance is an abbreviation for “faith working by love”; works are the criterion or fruit (manifestation) of the faith which all along, from beginning to end (final judgment), rest in Christ and his imputed righteousness. In a word, for the believer the final judgment according to work is the consummation of justification by faith.

Since the document speaks of the judgment as the “culmination” of justification it is difficult to see how justification, in this life, really is once-for-all and final. Does this way of thinking and speaking really accord with Paul’s language: “having therefore been justified by faith, we have peace with God”? (Rom 5:1) Scripture does not say “Since justification has been inaugurated will be consummated in the judgment according to works, we have peace with God.” To read Paul this way would turn his intent on its head. His intent is for the believer to know, with a “certain knowledge and hearty trust” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 21) that he is now presently, irrevocably accepted by God for Christ’s sake alone and this not “of works” or “according to works” but “of faith.” This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Again, Scripture does not say that, though there is now no condemnation but there remains a future and final adjudication. The catechism picks up on this teaching:

Q. 58. What comfort takest thou from the article of “life everlasting”?

A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life, I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that to praise God therein for ever.

Q. 59. But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

A. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

Q. 60. How are thou righteous before God?

A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

When the catechism thinks about the future, even the judgment, it does not envision a second justification nor a second stage of justification. Question 52 assumes that we are already justified.

Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?

A. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.

For believers the judgment is not a new adjudication, a second justification but a blessing and a vindication of the justification received by grace alone, through faith alone.

The document takes a step in this direction:

In so far as the final judgment may be viewed, in the case of believers, as a justification, the difference between it and the justification that takes place when the sinner is united to Christ may be expressed at the lead of 2 Corinthians 5:7, by the distinction between justification by faith and justification by sight (cf. WSC, 38: “openly acknowledged and acquitted”), or perhaps between justification by faith and justification in the (resurrected) body (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10).

Yet the document ignores the fact that the divines who framed the standards used different language and categories precisely to distinguish between justification and vindication—”openly acknowledged and acquitted.” What has already been declared, namely the justification of sinners, is recognized. We should not accept the document’s facile equation of an ostensible future justification with the vindication of believers.

The document wants to include our future, final justification “according to works” in the gospel.

The inclusion of the final judgment according to works for believers as an integral element of the Gospel, among other things, serves as a reminder that justification by faith is not only something that has happened in the past experience of the believer but is a present, ongoing concern (cf. The title of Calvin’s Institutes, 3:14). Most assuredly, the removal of condemnation, the invitation of Christ righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, all of which take place at the moment the sinner is first united to Christ by faith, are once-for-all and your reversible, and initiate the state of justification from which believers can never fall (W CF, 11:5). Any presentation of the Gospel or formulation of the doctrine of justification that obscures or denies this is simply unfaithful to Scripture. But at the same time it must also be kept clear that this irrevocable justification is received by faith with a view to it’s persevering to the end…. As true faith, wrought and sustained by the sovereign power of God, it is bound to persevere; but it must in fact persevere, of faith which, as it continues to rest in Christ and receive everything from him, works by love.

Justification is not merely initiated. No, it is declared. Justification has been accomplished and applied. We should not accept that way of speaking about justification.

If we simply allow the judgment to be what it is: acknowledgment of what God has already declared and what he has wrought in them as fruit and evidence, we have resolved the matter

To connect justification and perseverance in this way is not to introduce a note of fear or uncertainty into the gospel or confound the entire graciousness of justification with an element of legalism. Rather it is to make intelligible to the congregation its existence between justification and final judgment, as the people who serve the living and true God as they wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead for their justification, Jesus, who delivers them from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9,10; Rom. 4:25).

The document does not want to introduce fear and uncertainty but has it succeeded? The document seems dissatisfied with the historic Reformed approach of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism) and the gospel mystery of sanctification graciously, gradually wrought within justified believers united to Christ. It begs leave to connect our perseverance to a putative future justification. This is a new thing. The medieval and later the Tridentine Roman communion sought to induce believers to greater sanctity through a two-stage doctrine of justification: an initial justification in baptism and a final justification through sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace).

The document wants to avoid this outcome but there are too many similarities between the medieval and Roman schemes to the scheme proposed here to ignore.

Belgic Confession art. 24 makes clear that we believe that believers will be sanctified, they will produce fruit, they will do good works in light of Christ’s work for them and in union with him as he works in them.

In the ordinary course of things believers will do good works, as they should, as they must, as befits those who have received such free favor from God, in Christ. This is the “way of salvation,” i.e., the ordinary process by which the Spirit works salvation (definitive justification and progressive sanctification). These good works are evidence and fruit of the Spirit’s work. The ground of our one justification is the righteousness of Christ imputed. The only instrument of our justification and salvation is faith alone. We do not advance our understanding of Scripture or our confession of faith by re-defining justification or by tying it to sanctification and works.

NOTES
1. The NA28 says: “οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ [τῷ] θεῷ, ἀλλʼ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται.” The Vulgate reads: “non enim auditores legis iusti sunt apud Deum sed factores legis iustificabuntur.” Theodore Beza’s Latin New Testament has “(non enim qui audiunt legem justi sunt apud Deum; sed qui legem praestant justificabantur.” Arguably the Vulgate is a more straightforward translation. What make’s Beza’s interesting is the insertion of the prepositional phrase apud Deum (with God), the insertion of parentheses (in my 1834 edition) which extend to v. 15, and the use of the somewhat more ambiguous praestant in place of factores. Praestant has a number of senses among them “to fulfill.” It seems as if Beza wanted to make clearer the sense that the law is something that must be performed completely or perfectly and not merely attempted. One of the two notes on this verse in the Geneva Bible (1599 edition) says: “Shall be pronounced just before God’s judgment seat: which is true indeed, if any such could be found that had fulfilled the law: but seeing Abraham was not justified by the Law, but by faith, it followeth that no man can be justified by works.”