Friday, November 24, 2006

Justification by faith & the gospel

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.


Dave Williams said...

My opinion is that Wright kind of splits a sentence up to make a point. If we stop at the Gospel being the announcement of the Kingdom then question -how do we become part of it? If it is only the justification by faith then justification by faith for what purpose. So if we join it up God's Kingdom has arrived in Jesus Christ and you can be part of that Kingdom if you are justified by faith.

I think Wright knows that really. But he wants to do something with justification to stop it dividing catholics and protestants

Pete said...

I think Wright would say that justification is not 'how' one enters the kingdom, but rather God's statement that you have entered (and I think he would prefer to talk covenant than kingdom). Hence faith in his understanding becomes the new 'boundary marker' that tells you who has is justified (a covenant-member). Hence his statements elsewhere that justification is not strictly to do with soteriology but ecclesiology.

Whilst I cannot judge a man's motives, it is true that at times he seems to be applying his understanding of justification to encourage greater ecumenical fellowship between catholics and evangelicals, though my suspicion is that this is more likely to be within his own denomination (Cofe, therefore anglo not roman catholics). I'm not sure all who agree with elements of Wright's exegesis agree with all of Wright's applications of his exegesis.

Ros said...

I think this relates to a question I've been thinking about for a while - are the mechanics of the gospel the same as the gospel itself? I would say that 'justification by faith' along with 'union with christ' and 'penal substitutionary atonement' are things that tell us about the mechanics of the gospel. They tell us how it comes about, what God does in order that there is 'good news'. And, in that sense, we might say that they 'are' the gospel.

But what is the substance of the good news? It seems to me that this includes things like the restoration of the covenant community, the blessings of fellowship with our heavenly father, the joy of forgiven sin...
And isn't this, rather than the mechanics, the focus of the NT evangelistic preaching?

Your point about what we need to believe to be saved is, I think, a crucial one. We don't need to know or understand or even believe in any of those things I mentioned earlier to be saved. We need to believe in Christ as our Lord and Saviour. When I became a Christian I knew no more than that God loved me and had made it okay for me to be loved and welcomed by him. That the cross had something to do with this came as a great surprise about a year later!

Now, of course, as one goes on in the faith, one can either continue in ignorance (but still have true faith) or begin to get to grips with these ideas. And, just as with all scriptural doctrines, persistent unbelief may be a sign of false conversion. But faith, not knowledge or understanding (even of faith itself) is all that is needed.

Neil said...

Derrick Olliff argues the gospel/good news is the proclamation of a new king. He examines the uses of the euaggelion/euaggelizo word group, esp. in OT/LXX. In 1 Sam 31:8; 2 Sam 1:20; 4:9; 18:19-32; 1 Kgs 1:41; 2 Kgs 7:9 etc, the good news proclaims the death of the previous (usu. bad) king, and the enthronement of the new (good) king. So we could say the gospel is the overthrow of Satan and the enthronement of Christ.

Of course, a word study of euaggelion won't tell you the exhaustive content of the Christian gospel, but it's a good start.

Pete said...

I think u are absolutely right. And your experience is that of many I'm sure. I guess what we should be wary of is reductionist accounts of the gospel thaat say 'bcause x is not the primary thing in Paul's mind when he says 'gospel', it is an issue that doesn't matter', especially when we can see clear evidence in teh scripture that to deny x is in fact to deny the gospel. Just as sometimes reformed people might have been guilty of reducing the gospel to a proclamation of one aspect of gospel-mechanics, now I wonder if the temptation is to reduce it to verbal assent to Jesus' Lordship regardless of what 'mechanics' are denied by such a person (btw, I've not got Tom Wright in my sights when i say this).

So I wonder, given the language of Galatians 1, is there a case for saying that the 'mechanics' of the gospel, rightly understood, are the gospel too, in that through them the heart of the gospel is proclaimed (that Jesus is Christ and Lord), such that to deny or distort the mechanics (rather than, say simply not understand them or be ignorant of them) is to preach another gospel. This is evidently the case with justification and penal substitution too.

In this sense the mechanics would be a part of the whole and are 'gospel' themselves, even serving to give substance and meaning to the core proclamation (i.e. what does the proclamation 'Jesus is Lord' mean if we rob it of e.g. justification by faith, or penal substitution, and so on? Surely these truths, together with many others, stand behind, establish and contribute to filling out what it means for Jesus to be Christ and Lord).

Seem to remember Stott saying something wise about this in the cross of Christ. Something that had this sort of jist - 'of course people don't need to be able to articulate a doctrine of penal substitution to be saved, but the more us preachers teach it and teach it well, the better able people are to put their trust in Christ(which will save them)'

Ros said...

Yes, I think I basically agree with you Pete. My concern is that often in evangelical circles we reduce the gospel to its mechanics, but of course there is a sense in which the mechanics 'are' the gospel to. And to deny them effectively means to deny the whole gospel, without saying that they are the whole gospel.

And of course there's the opposite danger you mention - of reducing the gospel so as to allow people to mean a whole lot of things that aren't the gospel, but retain a similar form of words.

Tom Wright last week used a very helpful analogy, explaining the role of doctrine. He said that doctrines were like suitcases - a useful way of carrying a whole load of stuff. But it's the contents of the suitcase that actually matters - when we unpack everything that's contained in the doctrine. So we can say 'the gospel is Christ is Lord' or 'the gospel is the restoration of the exiled community' or 'the gospel is justification by faith' but all of those are just shorthand for a whole lot of interconnected stuff that 'is' the gospel.

Dave Williams said...


I have a slight quibble with that -and it is only a slight one. I would have wanted to ask Tom what he meant by "doctrine" -did he mean the careful constructs of systematic theology and creeds? If so fair enough. Or was he slipping into a specific error which is around which is to try and say that the Bible isn't about propositional statements and its just the narrative that matters (sometimes the wrod "just" is used). Doctrine -as in the teaching of the Bible isn't just a suitcase to carry things around in. So when Paul sets out an important series of propositional statements, believing them and getting them right matters.