[The following blogpost was originally published on 11/14/09.]
“Justification is by faith alone.” This doctrinal statement was the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. With this statement, the Reformers taught that people are counted as righteous before God, not based on their own good works, but based on their belief in who Jesus is and what He has done on behalf of sinners. Traditionally, Protestants have taught that the good works God requires were actually accomplished by Christ and that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to sinners on the basis of their faith in Him [this faith in Christ is also seen as a free gift from God], so that faith is considered the instrument that takes a hold of the righteousness of Christ: this is why “justification is by [means of] faith alone.” The basis of justification is seen to be Christ’s righteousness alone.
Today, some scholars once identified with the Protestant tradition have begun to question the teaching outlined above. For example, N.T. Wright asserts:
“… it makes no sense that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or gas that can be passed across the courtroom,” [N.T. Wright, The Shape of Justification, 98.]
One new school of thought teaches that the phrase “justification is by faith” should be understood to mean that God graciously accounts a sinner’s faith itself as the fulfillment of all righteousness. In this view, justification does not come through the imputed righteousness of Christ on the sinner’s behalf, received by faith; rather, justification consists of faith, which God considers to be righteousness.
In defending the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, John Piper– in the middle of a careful exegetical study of relevant biblical passages– gives the following helpful illustration:
Suppose I say to Barnabas, my teenage son, “Clean up your room before you go to school. You must have a clean room or you won’t be able to watch the game tonight.” Suppose he plans poorly and leaves for school without cleaning the room. And suppose I discover the messy room and clean it. His afternoon fills up, and he gets home just before it’s time to leave for the game and realizes what he has done and feels terrible. He apologizes and humbly accepts the consequences. No game.
To which I say, “Barnabas, I am going to credit the clean room to your account because of your apology and submission. Before you left for school this morning I said, ‘You must have a clean room or you won’t be able to watch the game tonight.’ Well, your room is clean. So you can go to the game.”
That’s one way to say it, which corresponds to the language of Romans 4:6. Or I could say, “I credit your apology for a clean room,” which would correspond to the language of Romans 4:3. What I mean when I say, “I credit your apology for a clean room” is not that the apology is the clean room, nor that the clean room consists of the apology, nor that he really cleaned his room. I cleaned it. It was pure grace. All I mean is that, in my way of reckoning– in my grace– his apology connects him with the promise given for the clean room. The clean room is his clean room.
You can say it either way. Paul said it both ways: “Faith is imputed for righteousness” (4:3,9), and “God imputes righteousness to us [by faith]” (4:6,11). The reality intended in both cases is: I cleaned the room; he now has a cleaned room; he did not clean the room; he apologized for the failure; in pure grace I counted his apology as connecting him with the fulfilled command that I did for him; he received the imputed obedience as a gift. [John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, 63-64]
I encourage readers to consider again the imputed righteousness of Christ.
Labels: Reformation Theology