Justifying Faith

This entry contains interpretations of Calvin that are, I think, tedentious and questionable. I won’t engage them but I will recommend that readers consult Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God: Calvins Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought) for some more relevant evidence about Calvin’s views.

Also, it is worth pointing out that we have other teachers besides John Calvin. I’ve heard Shepherd and others appeal to J. Gresham Machen, for example, as someone who insisted that justification in James and Paul was not a word applying to two different things.

Likewise, for what it is worth, the Westminster Confession’s chapter “Of Justification” (11) contains this statement:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

The term, “dead faith” is a direct quotation from James, and is cited in the prooftexts. It is unclear to me how one can claim to be confessional on this point and claim that justification here means something different than the justification of sinners as Paul teaches with all of Scripture and which this chapter (and even the small paragraph quoted above) is uniformly discussing.

So Lane’s “smoking gun” is:

Works is therefore a constituent member of justifying faith. They have to be Spirit-filled works, of course. My question is this: how is this one iota different from Trent? Trent would be more than happy with this formulation. I go with Calvin, who resolutely adheres to the exclusive particle in the phrase “justification by faith alone.”

Well, anyone is free to consult any standard work on the gulf between Reformed and Roman Catholic views on this matter and see what is stated everywhere: Roman Catholic theology think James’ “dead faith” is real faith by which a Christian must be justified as long as he mixes in works.

But the Protestants all disagreed. They thought James’ “dead faith” was mere assent which was not true faith. On the contrary, true faith is defined this way, with general and a principle actions.

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

For more on this paragraph, see my essay here.

I note in passing that the exclusive particle “alone” (or better adverbially: “only”) stands just fine in the Westminster/Shepherd view. “Alone” doesn’t refer to constituent parts, but about the need for extras. Saying that faith is always obedient, does not make works an instrument of justification in any anti-Protestant sense.

On the other hand, it is not clear to me how Lane can keep himself within those bounds. He is still, I notice, acting like speaking of what is or is not “in justification” actually communicates clearly and precisely. It does nothing of the kind, as far as I can tell, but only promotes confusion and needless suspicion. I think we’d be better off asking about the meritorious ground of our justification, or cause.  But you know me: I’m just a nostalgic traditionalist.

But lets think for a moment about what it would take to eliminate any and every sense of saying a sinner is justified “by works” if “works” are defined as any obedience in the abstract.

Could a sinner be justified by merely passively receiving Christ’s righteousness?  Well, no.  God commands all sinners to cease all attempts at self-salvation and to rely and receive only Christ’s righteousness.  This leaves a sinner justified by obeying the Gospel.  And that is a denial of the Gospel according to our neo-rigorists.

Could a sinner be justified by faith alone with faith defined as nothing more than assent?  Again, no.  “Assent” is a verb.  It is an action.  It is something a person does.  It is something a person is commanded to do.  Again, we are back to justification by works, and the Gospel is again denied according to “Reformed” neo-rigorist standards.

What self-stultifying confusion do we want to pour over the church of Jesus Christ?  This whole quest for non-obedient faith to justify is self-referentially incoherent, and it is not in conformity to our heritage.  The neo-rigorists should not be permitted to redefine the Faith.  Whatever Shepherd’s alleged sins, the price of condemning him comes too high.  It means the loss of coherent conversation about theology in favor of self-contradictory shibboleths that function as social boundaries without having any cognitive content.

8 thoughts on “Justifying Faith

  1. garver

    Maybe I’m missing the context here, but isn’t the Reformed position that while the faith that justifies is indeed a faith that works itself out in love, this one and same faith is justifying qua receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation and not qua yielding obedience to Christ?

  2. Mark

    Well, maybe, but that is not what the Confession states, though it rightly places the emphasis on receiving and resting.

    I guess I need to know what “qua” means. I’d also like to know how exactly we are relating faith to to works. It seems to me that we would be left with either a “mechanical” or a “occasional” relationship between faith and its fruit. I don’t see how this would be compatible with the faith described of Abraham in Romans 4 or that of the OT saints described in Hebrews 11.

  3. garver

    How it is not what the confession states? It seems to me to be a pretty straightforward reading of WCF 11.1 & 2 taken together with 14.2.

    The relationship between faith and it’s fruit isn’t directly the question though. The question is the relationship between faith and justification.

    Even if faith itself is an act of evangelical obedience, it doesn’t justify insofar as it is an act of evangelical obedience, but insofar as it receives and rests upon Christ.

  4. mark Post author

    “Even if faith itself is an act of evangelical obedience, it doesn’t justify insofar as it is an act of evangelical obedience, but insofar as it receives and rests upon Christ.”

    I get that, but I don’t think it is clear and has, in fact, led rather otherwise intelligent people to start talking about a millisecond difference in time between sanctification and justification.

    All these “in” justification are using prepositions ambiguously. Since all agree that the material ground of our standing before God is the person and work of Jesus Christ, I think we should let it stay there.

    I take this as the faith that justifies:


    9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

    13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the ones of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

    16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the one of the law but also to the one who is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.


    Now, here we have a clear statement that it is Jesus who gives us a righteous standing before God, his death and resurrection. i don’t see any need to start talking about a “faith” that justifies but not because it trusts God and hopes in him. It simply doesn’t clarify but causes confusion, in my opinion.

  5. garver

    Talk about confused. I’m not following you at all.

    How is “receives and rests upon Christ” distinct from “trusts God and hopes in him”? Isn’t “Christ” here shorthand for how all God’s promises are “Yes” and “Amen”? Or were you making a different point?

  6. pentamom

    I think the distinction between “receives and rests” and “trusts and hopes” as Mark’s using them, is intended to be the difference between something that is passive, and something that is motivating. Is that it?


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