Talk About Justification Priority

Peter Leithart has posted an excerpt from his Reformation Day sermon. I suppose I should find this encouraging to see a man who does not wear tradition readily, but enjoys the “creative tension” that he learned at least while studying at Westminster Seminary, affirm the blessings of Protestantism. But like so much that Leithart writes, the points that lead to agreement are cheek-by-jowl alongside matters of serious contention.

So first for the encouraging bit. To the question, “Is the Reformation dead?” Leithart responds without hesitation:

We don’t believe so. We believe that the achievements of the Reformation are still worth defending, that the work of the Reformation is still worth preserving. The Reformation recovered biblical truths that had either been rejected or buried in late medieval Catholicism. In themselves, the Reformation slogans are just slogans, but they get at central biblical truth.

But then comes the contentious part. Standing for the Protestant Reformation may not mean maintaining the doctrines of the sixteenth century in a dogmatic way:

If defending the Reformation means nothing more than repeating the Reformation slogans or assenting to (or claiming to assent to) the Reformation confessions; if defending the Reformation means we carry on with business as usual, carry on in the way the Reformation churches have always carried on; if being Protestant means we stay still – then the Reformation has become a kind of tribalism.

If that is what being Protestant means, then the Reformation has been turned upside down and inside out. It began as a protest against fossilized and distorted tradition, and it will cease to be genuinely Protestant if it becomes another kind of traditionalism. The Reformers called for a reform of the church according to the word of God, but the Reformers knew that the work of reforming the church would not end in their generation, or ever.

If being Protestant means simply trying to preserve or recapture the sixteenth century, then the Reformation is already dead and deserved to die.

This hostility to tradition evokes similar words from John Frame with whom Leithart studied at Westminster. In his defense of biblicism, Frame wrote that “The notion that Scripture addresses, to some extent, every important human question, produced at Westminster a high quality of theological creativity. We often associate orthodoxy with stagnancy and traditionalism. But at Westminster, the commitment to sola Scriptura propelled it in the opposite direction.” Frame added:

During my student years, I was never asked to read any of the Reformed confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes, except in small bits. I never read any official standards of church government or discipline, not to mention Robert’s Rules of Order. We used Hodge and Berkhof in our systematics classes, but for the most part we were graded not on our reading but on our knowledge of Murray’s lectures. After graduation I became ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and I confess I was rather surprised at the seriousness with which my fellow ministers took the Confessional Standards and Presbyterian traditions. Eventually I became more like my fellow Orthodox Presbyterian (and later Presbyterian Church in America) elders, but not without some nostalgia for the openness of theological discussion during my seminary years.

Would Leithart say the same of his years at Westminster? The answer is anyone’s guess. But the idea of theological creativity is one that links Leithart to Frame and Westminster Seminary of a certain era. As valuable as questioning and creativity may be in Reformed theology, the Federal Vision is not a very good way to carry on the tradition of the Reformation. I would assume that Frame agrees with that assessment. Leithart obviously does not (though I am not sure that even the Federal Vision capture and tame the footloose and highly original Leithart).

The oddest and least successful part of Leithart’s sermon comes in his paean for justification by faith:

For Paul, justification is not only a work of God but a work of all of God, a seamless work of the Father, Son and Spirit, like all God’s works.

When we do that, we find that justification by faith includes or implies everything that we want to say about a twenty-first century Reformation.

Justification means being made right with God through Christ, through the faithful death of Christ.

Justification by faith means that righteousness is given to us, not through the law but through the cross, which we receive by faith.

Justification means that Christ lives in me, and I no longer live and the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God.

Justification means that God has created a community of the justified, a community united without division of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Lutheran or Methodist, Baptist or Catholic.

Justification means that righteousness has come, the righteousness by which God will restore the world.

Justification means that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that we are swept up in that fulfillment.

Justification means that God is blessing the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham.

Justification means that the Spirit has been given to those who hear with faith, the Spirit that fulfills the promise to Abraham, the Spirit of righteousness and justice, the Spirit of life and renewal.

Justification, finally, means that this is all God’s work, and that all of God has done all this. The Father sent the Son whose death brought righteousness, which is the gift of the Spirit. The Father counts as righteous those who are in the Son, and shows His acceptance of us by giving us the Abrahamic promise, the Spirit. Justification means that the Triune God is God, Just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.

Justification means that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Triune God has revealed His righteousness, the undying commitment of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to their own eternal communion, the eternal, undying, triumphant commitment to incorporate us, the seed of Abraham, into that communion.

Maybe, but why can’t justification simply mean an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone?

That is a whole lot clearer than Leithart’s list of meanings, and it indicates why some of us still prefer the era of Reformed orthodoxy to the one of Reformed biblicism – it’s just better.

21 thoughts on “Talk About Justification Priority

  1. At 57, am utterly glad that I had to memorize the Little Catechism…it still runs in the veins. Its phrases and rhythms. Funny, when I had Frame as a Professor, the Catechism was little quoted.

    Also, reducing the 6000-volume library here. Frame’s books will be ebayed.


  2. The implications resulting from justification and the act of justification itself must be distinguished. Leithart’s list blurs the lines of demarcation with other doctrines of historic Reformed Theology.


  3. Contrasting what Leithart says in his sermon with what justification “simply means” in the WCF is a false choice and ignores the difference between definition and implication. Leithart is rolling out, in a sermonic context, all the implications of justification, he’s not simply giving a succinct dogmatic definition. Further, he’s emphasizing the Trinitarian dimension, so he has a particular reason for doing this. It’s like you’re trying to start an argument where there isn’t one to be had…


  4. Yeah Dr.Hart, once again a confessionalist has misunderstood what an FVer is trying to say. FVer’s and my dog should go bowling.


  5. Jonathan Barlow, well, if truth be told (as it was in the post) I am no fan of the way that FV puts together and passes on the Reformed tradition. It goes everywhere and anywhere. And if you think that is not true of Peter and his blog, I don’t know what internet browser you are using. But as I also said, I don’t know that Peter is actually content to stay on the FV reservation, whatever its boundaries may be.


  6. I’m not sure what your post or Peter’s has to do with “FV”… Peter is talking about Trinitarian aspects of Justification. You’re extolling the virtues of Westminster’s definition. And I’m just asking why you chose to contrast the two when there was no need. When Peter mows his yard, does his mowing technique bear the taint of federal visiondom?


  7. Jonathan Barlow, since Peter is the only Federal Visionary under trial right now (as far as I know), his name does come to mind with the movement. Are you saying that Peter is no longer part of Federal Vision or that FV has nothing to say about justification?


  8. Your post was not about the Federal Vision, nor was Peter’s. Your post contrasted biblicism with confessionalism. Peter’s post was about the Trinitarian implications of justification. I commented about how you were injecting a false dilemma here and then you suddenly brought up the Federal Vision. In other words, of course, the Westminster definition is “clearer” given that it is a definition, not a sermon expressing the implications of justification by faith alone. I have no clue if Peter’s other beliefs on justification are idiosyncratic or de rigueur in comparison to other Federal Vision writers. You did not take issue with the content of any of Peter’s statements, only that he didn’t choose to confine himself to a concise definition derived word-for-word from a confession. My guess is that plenty of “Old Life” approved confessionalists gave similar sermons or reflections last Sunday in which justification was not merely defined, but applied to many aspects of the human condition in need of God’s grace. Right?


  9. Jonathan, wrong. The point of Old Life and of confessionalism (as I see it) is to make sure that you don’t have an expansive view of salvation because that generally leads to transformationalism of the Federal Vision, theonomic, Social Gospel, or pietistic variety.

    Why the need to pump salvation up into some vision produced by theological creativity and cultural relevance? Could it be the Corinthian theology that beats inside all fallen souls?


  10. John Paulling, sorry but I don’t think I need to put more time into analyzing Peter’s list than his own post indicates. I will say that the idea that God has created a community of the justified that knows no boundaries or denominations sounds very warm and fuzzy. But I don’t think you would use justification this way to identify the church or communion — what you would use is a lot more than the doctrine of justification. So it proves too much.

    And then it proves too little, as if the differences among Reformed and Methodists are of no consequence for the community of the justified.

    Frankly, the piece is a lot more inspired than reasoned.


  11. I’m not so sure. Why would you use more than the doctrine of justification to identify the community of the justified?


  12. I suspect that Leithart knows the difference between the community of his church, and the community of the justified. I’m having trouble seeing what your beef is.


  13. “When Peter mows his yard, does his mowing technique bear the taint of federal visiondom?”

    No. His backyard, however, is another story — at least to the extent that he buries the sheep he personally slaughtered in his back yard.


  14. Why is this unclear? I hear what you’re saying, but I feel like “lack of clarity” is a trumped up charge, and its getting old. It seems to me that Leithart is paraphrasing twelve different things the Bible teaches about justification. I could even point to chapters and verses. Why do I feel like me saying that is somehow going to be a problem?

    Why does this conversation get so quickly out of control? We have a man here, who calls himself “The Rectifier” ridiculous in its own right, and accuses Leithart of slaughtering and burying sheep in his backyard. Come on.


  15. Darryl

    ‘Maybe, but why can’t justification simply mean an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone?’

    Because the Bible doesn’t understand it that way. Just for example, in Galatians, a book all about the gospel of justification by faith, Paul’s opening summary of that gospel is ‘who gave himself for us that he might deliver us from this present evil world’. As the letter develops, redemption from sin, law, flesh and the world itself are all seen as integral to this message of justification by faith.


  16. Dewey Roberts—“There are two views that have prevailed in the Church concerning the sacraments. One is the high view of the efficacy of the sacraments. The second is the view that the grace of the sacraments is conveyed only to the elect by the Spirit. Neither view denies the work of the Holy Spirit altogether. The first view ties the work of the Spirit to the sacraments and is, thereby, sacramentalism. In the second view, the Holy Spirit is not tied to the time of the administration of the sacraments, but He is sovereign in working grace when and where and how and to whom He pleases.

    Dewey Robert—-The high view of the efficacy of baptism is the view of the Scholastics; of Thomas Aquinas; of Trent and Catholicism; and, of High Church Protestants. But it is not the view of the Westminster Confession of Faith or reformed theology. Bahnsen’s shift towards the objectivity of the sacraments and a high view of the efficacy of them was a shift away from reformed theology and a shift towards sacramentalism. … As Philip Schaff wrote concerning the Schoolmen—-In defining what a sacrament is—quid est sacramentum—the Schoolmen started with Augustine’s definition that a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, but went beyond him in the degree of efficiency they ascribe to it. Beginning with Hugo, they assert in unmistakable language that the sacraments contain and confer grace—continere et conferre gratiam—the language afterwards used by the Council of Trent….

    Dewey Roberts—The essential issue is, as Schaff opined, the degree of efficiency that is ascribed to the sacraments. A high view of the efficacy of baptism ascribes too much efficiency to them and makes the Spirit subordinate to the sacraments. The sacraments are then viewed as having a virtue in themselves …


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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.