In blogging on this subject I am aware that I enter into a debate in which I am no expert - a debate which seems to be increasingly 'charged'. Therefore, some caveats are necessary. This blog is not intended as
a. a definitive answer or discussion of these issues
b. an anathematisation of those I might be disgreeing with (or even an engagement with a definitive statement of what they believe)
c. an exegetical work on the relevant passages
It is, however, some of my current thoughts on the place of justification by faith in the gospel.
A couple of quotes from Tom Wright to kick us off. Please read them in context HERE or (PDF) HERE (for the first two, which are actually one quotation) and HERE (for the third statement). And please remember that they are not meant to be somehow definitive of his position.
‘If we are thinking Paul’s thoughts after him, we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith.’
‘We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself – in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.’
‘Justification by faith itself is a second-order doctrine.’
I want to affirm the second statement and deny the first and third. Hence the question is:-
Is ‘justification by grace through faith’ the gospel?
A distinction must be made. There are two ways of saying something ‘is’ the gospel. One way would be to use ‘is’ to mean that something truly is a part of the gospel, though not, of course, the sum total of the it. Hence you’re in a conversation with someone who says ‘tell me the gospel’ (as people do). You give him/her your best and clearest gospel outline. You have told them the gospel (i.e. you haven’t told them another gospel or a false gospel) even though you haven’t told them the entirety of the gospel.
The other use of ‘is’ equates it with an 'equals' sign in the sense of 1 on 1 mapping. 'x is the gospel' thus means 'x = gospel', i.e. the gospel in its entirety.
In relation to ‘justification by faith’ then I want to say that this doctrine is the gospel in the first sense of that phrase. That is, explain justification by faith to someone and you have told them the gospel. Of course if you’d also talked to them about union with Christ, or resurrection, or of the kingdom of Christ, or the deity of Christ, or explained penal substitution to them, then you would still have told them the gospel. What you haven’t done is told them the entirety of the gospel. And depending on how you’ve explained it to them you might not have told them the heart of the gospel (I take it that justification and any other doctrine must be taught Christocentrically to qualify as telling the heart of the gospel. Wright is surely correct to say that the heart of the gospel is the declaration that 'Jesus is Lord', though he also affirms that this definition does not exclude the doctrine of justification). Of course in one sense they will spend the rest of their lives learning the entirety of the gospel, and in another sense, even in an evangelistic context you would want to explain more than justification to them pretty soon (a Christian who only knows this doctrine is going to be pretty unbalanced).
In all of this we need to consider Galatians 1: 6-8, where the context is false teaching about justification.
Gal 1:6-8 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (ESV)
Implication 1: If you deny justification by faith, you are denying the gospel.
Implication 2: Justification by faith was (at least part of) the gospel Paul preached to the Galatians.
Some concluding thoughts:
We can and should preach justification by faith evangelistically. I think we do get justification by faith by believing in justification by faith (preached properly).
However, since preaching justification by faith is not the entirety of the gospel, someone can be ‘justified by faith’ without knowing/understanding this doctrine at the point of initial gospel call and God-generated response. However, so central is the concept, that justification ideas are never very far away when the gospel is faithfully presented, as I would suggest is even the case in places like Peter's sermon in Acts 2 (think cross, resurrection or forgiveness of sins and you're not far away from justification by faith sort of concepts). Some might argue that Wright would not necessarily disagree with this.
Justification is not a second-order issue, since to deny it is to deny the gospel (it is even to desert the one who called us by the gospel).
We should not over-emphasise justification by faith, nor be reductionist in our gospel presentations, to the extent that we neglect other aspects of the gospel that are as essential.
Similarly, we must explain justification by faith (and indeed all the other aspects of the gospel) in a way that is Christocentric not anthropocentric, that is, in a way that declares the fact that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ and not just as a ‘need-solution’ formula. Integrating it into our understanding of kingdom and/or covenant and/or union with Christ and/or resurrection etc. will help massively with this.