It is now 499 years after the launch of the Protestant Reformation, and as we await its semi-millennial anniversary with great anticipation, much has changed, and much has stayed the same. The opinions of men have varied and fluctuated, with varying degrees of maturation or regression, and this includes theological opinions. Yet a couple of things, among many other, have stayed the same: the fundamental problems of the fallen human condition, the character of the salvation in Christ which remedies those problems, and the truth of the God-breathed Scriptures which bear witness to those grand truths.
Man’s problem is sin and its resultant misery. The resultant misery includes both degenerative and “forensic,” or legal, aspects. Man is corrupt in body, mind, heart, and soul, and is returning to the dust. He is also liable to the just punishment of God, who does not delight in the death of the wicked for its own sake, yet delights in the upholding of His own infinite glory and honor (each person of the Triune godhead especially concerned with the honor of each other person). This punishment is death, and not only the death of returning to the dust, but a final death, the “second death” of the “lake of fire” on the other side of the resurrection and final judgment.
The remedy offered in Christ is as many-faceted as the problem. The gospel of the kingdom of God, established on earth by God’s Messiah, spreading like yeast throughout dough to all the nations, one day to be consummated in glory, offers to repentant man a rebirth, an adoption, an inheritance, a new nature, a new name, a new family (including God as Father), a new holiness, and the hope of a new body and permanent home in the new heavens and earth wherein righteousness will dwell. It also offers to condemned sinners a new legal status of forgiven and “righteous” in the courtroom of heaven. The sixteenth century Reformers had much to say about the character of this latter benefit. While it, by itself, does not constitute the fullness of the gospel, it is a crucial aspect of salvation, and there is much New Testament material dedicated to explaining and defending its truth against distortions.
In 2016, the number of differing expositions and explanations of St. Paul’s doctrine of justification, in particular, by biblical commentators, is large and ever increasing, even within Protestantism.
Some hold to a traditional Protestant and Reformed view that reaches its pinnacle in the affirmation of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ through faith alone as a biblical category (which the Westminster Standards come just shy of affirming explicitly), usually with the corollary that Paul’s polemic targets a “works-righteousness” false gospel being preached by the first-century “Judaizers.” Others suggest that the traditional view is far too individualistic and anachronistic, imposing, as it does, medieval categories and concerns on an ancient text which is really more concerned with corporate, sociological categories like new covenant Gentile inclusion—Paul’s polemic targeting not some abstract “works-righteousness” mentality but rather a kind of ethnocentric covenant presumption within Israel. Still others characterize Paul’s polemic and his doctrine of justification as, more than anything else, eschatological in nature; that is, since a new “era” has dawned with the resurrection of Christ, the old, Mosaic economy has been done away with forever, such that insisting on the necessity of “works of the Law” now is futile at best and heretical at worst. As one preacher has commented about the book of Galatians, “The key question for this book is, ‘What time is it?’”
There are many proper and helpful insights into the biblical text, and into the richness of the whole redemptive narrative, with which the scholars in the latter two categories have provided the Church. Unfortunately, however, their preoccupation with historically neglected features of the dynamics of justification in Christ has all too often blinded them to the more obvious, traditional, and biblically legitimate aspects of Paul’s teaching and polemics that reach down to the foundation of the fallen human heart. Many deny that Paul has any kind of “works-righteousness” opponents in mind when he berates the Galatians and warns them about the dangers of fleshly pride, or when he instructs the Romans about Abraham’s justifying faith in the power of God rather than his own (despite his fleshly lapse with Hagar in the Genesis narrative).
Yet what we see consistently in Paul’s polemic, in contexts where he is greatly concerned to explain and defend justification by faith, is not only explicit contrasts between grace and a kind of “works principle” or fleshly self-reliance (cf. Rom. 4:4-5, 15-16; Gal. 4:23-26). We also observe a consistent concern that all human boasting be eliminated, and that God be thus glorified. The overarching sola of the Reformation is soli Deo gloria, “Glory to God alone!” Its truth depends, biblically and logically, on the truth of all the other solas, including sola fide. Note how closely bound up Paul’s doctrine of justification is with the exclusion of human boasting in Romans 3: “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (vv. 27, 28).
Interestingly, Paul goes on in the next verse in Romans 3 to speak about the living God being the God of both Jews and Gentiles. Clearly there are sociological and cultural issues tied closely together with justification by faith. The great “But now” of Rom. 3:21, furthermore, shows that there is also an irreducibly eschatological dimension of Paul’s theology of justification. However, if we fail to see that Paul attacks individual pride and self-righteousness as much as anything else, we have failed to recognize the depth of Scripture’s analysis of man’s depravity. We may have even failed to recognize the insidious “works-righteousness” mentality that sneaks back into our own minds at times, perhaps in the form of “Protestant penances” of quiet times or sessions of morbid introspection we think are necessary before letting go of guilt.
Perhaps an interesting way to begin a fresh—yet refreshingly traditional in ways—study of justification in Paul’s writings would be to ask, ‘What must the doctrine of justification teach in order to fully exclude all possible forms of human boasting with regard to legal status before God?’ Beneath the important questions of eschatology and sociology, what is it that compels Paul to meticulously oppose all boasting among the members of his audiences (cf. Rom. 3:27-28; Rom. 11:32-36; 1 Cor. 1:20-32; Eph. 2:8-10; etc.)?
What, in fact, caused Jesus to tell the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, wherein the Pharisee—like a good monergist—thanked God(!) that he was not like other men, who were swindlers, adulterers, and tax collectors; and wherein the publican beat his breast and meekly asked God for mercy, self-conscious of his sin, going home justified? In this case, we actually don’t have to guess at all why Jesus told the parable. The text tells us. “And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (Lk. 18:9). Note the order: they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt. There is a deep-seated pride in sinners that is opposed to a proper “vertical” relationship with God, and this expresses itself “horizontally” in contempt and hatred among men (between Jew and Gentile, for instance).
In conclusion, whatever else we continue to learn about the richness and many layers of the biblical doctrine of justification, we must never lose the heart of its ultimate aim: to glorify God, and to exclude human boasting. Otherwise we will distort or diminish the Bible’s teaching in both its positive and negative (polemical) aspects, and impoverish ourselves in our efforts to mortify our sinful flesh. Human pride is an ugly horse that rears its head at every opportunity, and threatens to cut us off from grace (Gal. 5:4) and obscure the glory of God in our salvation. Let us be slow to throw away or diminish the insights of our forefathers in the Reformed faith regarding these matters, and heed Jesus’ words: “…everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18:14b).