Forensic Friday: Warfield on Justification

Sometimes we are told that Justification by Faith is “out of date.” That would be a pity, if it were true. What it would mean would be that the way of salvation was closed and “no thoroughfare” nailed up over the barriers. There is not justification for sinful men except by faith. The works of a sinful man will, of course, be as sinful as he is, and nothing but condemnation can be built on them. Where can he get works upon which he can found his hope of justification, except from Another? His hope of Justification, remember – that is, of being pronounced righteous by God. Can God pronounce him righteous except on the ground of works that are righteous? Where can a sinful man get works that are righteous? Surely, not from himself; for, is he not a sinner, and all his works as sinful as he can offer to God as righteous. And where will he find such works except in Christ? Or how will he make them his own except by faith in Christ?

Justification by Faith, we see, is not to be set in contradiction to justification by Works. It is set in contradiction only to justification by our Own Works. It is justification by Christ’s Works. The whole question, accordingly, is whether we can hope to be received into God’s favor on the ground of what we do ourselves, or only on the ground of what Christ does for us. If we expect to be received on th e ground of what we do ourselves – that is what is called Justification by Works. If on the ground of what Christ has done for us – that is what is mean by Justification by Faith. Justification by Faith means, that is to say, that we look to Christ and to him alone for salvation, and come to God pleading Christ’s death and righteousness as the ground of our hope to be received into his favor. If Justification by Faith is out of date, that means, then, that salvation by Christ is out of date. There is nothing, in that case, left to us but that each man must just do the best he can do to save himself.

Justification by Faith does not mean, then, salvation by believing things instead of by doing right. It means pleading the merits of Christ before the throne of grace instead of our own merits. It may be doing right to believe things, and doing right is certainly right. The trouble with pleading our own merits before God is not that merits of our own would not be acceptable to God. The trouble is that we haven’t any merits of our own to plead before God. Adam, before his fall, had merits of his own, and because he had merits of his own he was, in his own person acceptable to God. He didn’t need Another to stand between him and God, whose merits he could plead. And, therefore, there was no talk of his being Justified by Faith. But we are not like Adam before the fall; we are sinners and have no merits of our own. It we are to be justified at all, it must be on the ground of the merits of Another, whose merits can be made ours by faith. And that is the reason why God sent his Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life. If we do not believe in him, obviously we must perish. But if we believe in him, we shall not perish but have everlasting life. That is just Justification by Faith. Justification by Faith is nothing other than obtaining everlasting life by believing in Christ. If Justification by Faith is out of date, then salvation through Christ is out of date. And as there is none other name under heaven, given among men, wherein we must be saved, if salvation through Christ is out of date then is salvation itself out of date. Surely, in a world of sinful men, needing salvation, this would b a great pity. (“Justification by Faith, Out of Date,” Selected Shorter Writings, I, pp. 281-282)

What is interesting to notice, at least for this forensically obsessive compulsive oldlifer, is the way Warfield identifies salvation with justification as in: “If Justification by Faith is out of date, that means, then, that salvation by Christ is out of date. There is nothing, in that case, left to us but that each man must just do the best he can do to save himself.”

Warfield may be in error, and may need correction by the likes of — insert the name of your favorite union theologian here. But he does exemplify the way some of us old timers have regarded the centrality of justification to the Reformed faith. It also accounts for why some become a tad concerned to hear that without union in the picture to supplement justification we have an impoverished understanding of salvation. Warfield explains well that justification is at the heart of the gospel.

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “Forensic Friday: Warfield on Justification

  1. Fantastic Warfield quote.

    DGH: Warfield may be in error, and may need correction by the likes of — insert the name of your favorite union theologian here.

    Not at all. Complementary approaches, remember? It’s not an error to express things in one way, or another. The error is to start taking issue with one side, or the other, as if the other were just plain wrong. And yes, I’m referring to goose and gander.

    Like

  2. Jeff, that is not my point. My point has to do with a new way of talking about things (union) that doesn’t also talk in the way the tradition has. I get it in the Frame multi-perspectival way of looking at things, you can say that Murray’s monocovenantalism and Kline’s covenant of grace are simply two ways of speaking about the same reality. But at some point, choices are important, as well as preserving what has been handed down from the tradition. So if unionists are going to introduce new phrasing, don’t they have incorporate the old language too? Then there is the ploy of saying the tradition needs to be corrected, and then when pressed, defend yourself by saying your saying what the tradition has always said. One day it’s new and improved, the next it is just what the churches always taught.

    Like

  3. DGH: My point has to do with a new way of talking about things (union) that doesn’t also talk in the way the tradition has.

    Hmm. So are you taking the role here of the traditional theologian, defending his right to speak in traditionally orthodox ways? Or are you taking the role of the guardian of orthodoxy, defending the boundaries against theological innovation?

    I ask this because the methods of each are different. A traditional theologian simply points at the tradition and says, “Look, what I’m saying is in the tradition.”

    And of course, that’s what Forensic Fridays and Where’s Waldo Wednesdays accomplish: they show that the tradition has a rich history of speaking of justification by imputation and indeed as the gateway to obtaining everlasting life.

    I have a lot of sympathy for this role. The traditional theologian’s thesis is, “My mode of expression is legitimate.”

    The guardian of orthodoxy, on the other hand, is going to press his perceived opponents to the mat and force them to demonstrate their own orthodoxy. His thesis is, “Your mode of expression is [probably not] legitimate.”

    This one is going to perceive ploys and threats and such in the statements of his counterparts.

    I have some sympathy for this role also (I have take a somewhat aggressive stance towards REPT at times 🙂 ).

    So which are you?

    Your role makes a difference in your stance. If you are the Traditional Theologian, then your counterparts are free to express themselves in other (traditionally orthodox) ways — like, say, Union with Christ. Your counterparts are only a threat if they come attacking your own orthodoxy. In that case, they are the aggressors.

    But if your role is Guardian, then your own stance towards your counterparts is much more skeptical. You are the aggressor.

    Your role also makes a difference in the kind of evidence you bring to the table. If your aim is to show the non-orthodoxy or theological novelty of your opponents, then the kinds of citations in FF and WWW are completely off-point. You would have to, in that case, deal with the citations speaking of union in traditional ways, and show that corresponding citations in your counterparts are a departure from these traditional ways.

    I have a hard time figuring out which role you see yourself in. Your evidence and some of your statements are consistent with defending your right to think in ordo ways. But at other points, you take a more aggressive stance and suspect union folk of introducing theological novelties.

    So: Are you defending or attacking?

    JRC

    Like

  4. DGH: Then there is the ploy of saying the tradition needs to be corrected, and then when pressed, defend yourself by saying your saying what the tradition has always said. One day it’s new and improved, the next it is just what the churches always taught.

    Exaclty! It’s their reliance on vague (even misleading) words and phrases that bothers me. They leave it to us readers to figure out how this fits into the tradition, and then if someone can’t connect the dots, they have a ready-made list of names to call us.

    With one slight alteration, I think this well-known Orwell quote is on point:

    “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of [theological] writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

    Like

  5. It is clear to me that language of “union with Christ” appears in the Reformed tradition prior to the 20th century.

    What is extremely dubious to me is when such language in the earlier (pre-20th century) tradition is imputed (or is it “infused”?) with what modern writers mean when they use the same verbiage (e.g., so-called “existential union with Christ”).

    There is HUGE a difference between “finding” your position in the tradition and showing that it was there all along, if you get my drift. One is called “historical and theological revisionism,” while the other is not.

    Like

  6. JJ,

    Would you please explain to me, with citations, what is meant by ‘modern writers’ when they say ‘union with Christ’ and how you suppose this differs from the Reformed tradition prior to the 20th century?

    I thought the question that Dr. Hart raises has to do with priority, not meaning. I certainly may be wrong in that assumption and would be glad to learn. I am currently studying the question and hope to find out what is at stake, why the sides are drawing up battle lines the way they are and why they seem to think that their views are irreconcilable.

    I see too many accusations of lutheranism (though, I think we need to distinguish how we understand union from lutherans) or shepherdism (though I think we need to be EXTREMELY careful in using language that guarantees views cannot become any kind of works righteousness). It seems to me that the discussion can go forward by going back to the early sources of Reformed writers and seeing how they understood union with Christ.

    If it turns out that the current usage is something ‘new’ and ‘different’ completely (rather than a clarification) then I think it needs to be stated as such. I am nervous by the accusation that they are equivocating.

    Sorry for the long post…JJ, please explain to me where the equivocation is taking place, if you would be so kind.

    Like

  7. The problem was that poor Bennie ( as he was affectionaly called by his friends on the PTS faculty )didn’t have the benefit of having chaps like James Jordon or Doug Wilson school him on things like ‘the objectivity of THE covenant’ which would have given him a ‘Reformed’ understanding of two kinds of elections and two kinds of justification as well as seeing baptism as the instructmental means of bring about ‘Union wth Christ’. Instead, Ol’ Bennie actually was directly responsible for ‘Machen’s Warrior children’ especially as it produced such unsavory characters like DGH and yours truly.

    Like

  8. Jeff, I don’t really see a difference between traditional theology and guardian of orthodoxy. Certainly you find both in Calvin, Ursinus, Owen, Berkhof, Warfield, etc. I’m not sure where you come up with that. Reformed ST has always been polemical, not simply with those outside the tradition but also inside. How do you think the Old School-New School division happened?

    I’m not saying this to be evasive. I don’t see my role as that of theologian. Again, my Greek and Hebrew are not sufficient to qualify. I do work as an elder and as a church historian. And part of what I’d like to do is to illuminate the tradition, which then means that the claims often made by pro-union people about being in the mainstream of the tradition are not as plausible as some think they are. One way to show this is to remember the way the tradition has expressed itself, and then to prompt those introducing something new (not necessarily novel, but perhaps a novel emphasis) to acknowledge the difference.

    I don’t think the tradition is monolithic. Nor do I think, however, that union can be found to be the golden thread that so many claim.

    So to answer your question: I’m trying to accurate historically, which then is an important tool in defining the tradition.

    Like

  9. Albert,

    I’m afraid that I don’t have anything constructive to say back at you. The point I was making is simply that I’m skeptical. I’m doubtful of the historical credibility of the claims/characterizations put forth by advocates of a “pro-union” position that “union with Christ” is the definitive hallmark which distinguishes Reformed theology from Lutheran (particularly on the relationship between justification and sanctification).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.