Justification and Union With Christ – A Via Media Between Abstract Forensic and Transformative Justification
It has been suggested that Reformed theologians defending forensic justification and imputation of Christ righteousness have misread, if not misrepresented the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) as a serious threat to the Reformation. This must surely be a wild exaggeration to suggest that Reformed theologians who have been debating the issue with the best of the Roman Catholic theologians for 500 years would feel insecure and threatened by NPP, the new kid on the block? In any event, Reformed scholars have often risen to the defence of “forensic justification and imputation of righteousness” not because it is ‘The Centre’ of Paul’s theology, but simply because this aspect of justification has been directly challenged by various theological movements throughout history which include Roman Catholicism, Socinianism and more recently, NPP.
Admittedly, it is possible for the heirs of the Reformation to over-react to these challenges. Thus some of the more extreme scholars of Lutheran scholasticism not only ascribe justification as the absolute central tenet of faith, but uphold justification to be above Christology. One wonders whether in the process, justification has become an abstract event detached from Christ.
Francis Pieper writes, “In Lutheran theology the article of justification is the central, chief article by which the Christian doctrine and the Christian Church stands and falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae); it is the apex of all Christian teaching…In Scripture all doctrines serve the doctrine of justification…Thus Christology serves merely as the substructure of the doctrine of justification.” Piper cites Luther, “Indeed, this article is, as it were, the fortress which most excellently safeguards the entire Christian doctrine and religion.” [Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951), II, 512-514]
Reformed theology (Calvinists) fully agrees with Lutheran scholasticism that justification with imputation of righteousness is a fundamental article of faith, but it is careful to avoid overemphasizing the forensic dimension of faith to such a degree that it leads to a neglect of other dimensions of salvation. It is precisely because Reformed theology views justification as Christocentric – justification as a benefit arising from union with Christ – that all the other benefits of salvation are kept in balance.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) approaches the question of justification with succinctness and balance:
WSC (Q. 30). How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us [a],and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling [b].
[a]. Rom. 10:17; 1Cor. 2:12-16; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29
[b]. John 15:5; 1Cor. 1:9; Eph. 3:17
The WSC proceeds to (Q.33): “What is justification?” The answer is,
Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
While the Westminster Confession of Faith insists that justification is forensic (for us) and by faith alone, it declares that saving faith is accompanied by other saving graces and transforming “works by love” (in us). The WCF begins with the forensic in chapter 11.1:
“Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; 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.”
The WCF 11.2 proceeds to add that faith is not alone. “In the person justified, however, it is always accompanied by all the other saving graces and is not a dead faith, but works by love.” Article 11.4 elaborates, “Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” That is to say, the Spirit operates and through that faith that “puts on” Christ (Gal. 3:27) forges a union between the believer into union with Christ and into possession of his benefits.
The Reformed tradition has always insisted that faith unites believers to Christ and as such “in Christ” they are justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified. In the words of Paul, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Corinthian 1:30). Lane Tipton from the Westminster Theological Seminary aptly summarizes Calvin’s teaching of our full benefits of salvation through union with Christ (Institutes 3.1.1) – “All of the benefits of redemption, whether we’re thinking in terms of justification, adoption, or sanctification, are mediated to believers by virtue of a Spirit-wrought faith that places them into union with the crucified and resurrected Son of God.”
Note that justification is situated between two affirmations, that is (1) justification relative to union with Christ, and (2) Spirit-engendered faith is the sole instrumental bond of union with Christ. In short, justification in Christ is a manifestation of the logically prior Spirit-wrought union with Christ by faith alone. The Reformed tradition teaches that while imputation of Christ’s righteousness is to be received by faith alone, nevertheless, that righteousness is received in the context of union with Christ. That is to say, in virtue of the union with Christ, the believer receives every spiritual blessing – justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification. The WCF affirms that these benefits manifests union with Christ
It can be seen that the Reformed teaching of justification in Christ provides a via media between Lutheran scholasticism and NPP (represented by Wright): (1) Lutheran scholasticism where the supremacy of the abstract event of justification (both temporally and logically) threatens to overshadow other benefits of Christ’s salvation, and (2) NPP (N.T. Wright) who unambiguously rejects the place for imputation of Christ alien righteousness which is the sole basis of right standing before God.
To be sure, the forensic and declarative dimension of both and future justification has become clearer in the more recent writings of Wright. However, Wright’s alternative suggestion that “It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection.” [N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 232] is not any clearer as to how this ‘reckoned righteousness’ happens even if we include a further explanation from him that by baptism “this ‘reckoning’ takes place within, and part of, incorporation into the people of the Messiah.” [http://ntwrightpage.com/Wrightsaid_March2004.htm]
In contrast, the Reformation teaching of imputation offers a clear explanation: Christ gives us his righteousness because we are united to him by faith. Our righteousness is not that of ourselves. It is given by another (hence alien righteousness). Furthermore, and contrary to Wright’s objection, imputation requires God taking into account moral character in justification: God’s holiness is satisfied and we gain forgiveness through Christ passive obedience (Christ was obedient unto death at the cross, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us through his active obedience which fulfils perfectly the law of God in his life. As John Murray writes,
He [Christ] took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter. Christ’s obedience was vicarious in the bearing of the full judgment of God upon sin, and it was vicarious to the full discharge of the demands of righteousness. His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification. [John Murray, Redemption Accomplished, Redemption Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), p. 22]
We stand in right relationship before God on the basis of the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
Phil. 3:9:—“And be found in Him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
Afterword: Martin Luther on “Two Kinds of Righteousness.”
Just to be fair to Lutheranism, I include two quotations from Martin Luther to show how he keeps a balance view of justification and righteousness.
1] There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds. The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith, as it is written in I Cor. 1:30: “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”…  Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it “the righteousness of God” in Rom. 1:17; For in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed…; as it is written, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Finally, in the same epistle, chapter 3:28, such a faith is called “the righteousness of God”: “We hold that a man is justified by faith.” This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam. It accomplishes the same as that original righteousness would have accomplished; rather, it accomplishes more.
 The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is that manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, of which we read in Gal. 5:24, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear towards God… This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence, for we read in Gal. 5:22, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” … This righteousness follows the example of Christ in this respect [1Pet 2:21] and is transformed into his likeness (2 Cor 3:18). It is precisely this that Christ requires.
Taken from Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness.”
Forthcoming posts: Krisis & Praxis Holidays Bonus Pack 2 :
1) Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and NPP. Part 6
NPP Reading No. 4
“Thomas Schreiner’s Critique of N.T. Wright’s View of Justification.”
2) Debating Justification with N.T. Wright and NPP. Part 7
“NPP – Regensburg (1541) Redux? Reformation Forensic Justification vs Transformative Justification”