Faith in Focus

What Gospel are we seeking to defend?
The sidelining of justification by faith alone.


I recently was asked to address the local Wellington Apologetics Society. I attempted to show that there is great confusion our there in the evangelical world as to just what gospel we are seeking to defend. I decided to adapt the material for this Editorial. The subject is one we should all be interested in as we begin another year as churches and as individual Christians in the Lord's service.

Arguing for the Faith within the Christian community

Normally when we think of apologetics we think of arguing for the faith with non-Christians who we long to see embrace the Gospel message. But I want to suggest that we also have a task within the Christian community to defend and argue for the tenets of the Gospel when we see them being undermined. Our motive is two-fold I suggest. Firstly the glory of God. And God's glory is sought through our evangelistic desire to see the truth reclaiming lost sinners. And if the truth is lost or obscured in the church then the God will not be glorified and the lost sinners will not be found of Him. And so I thought that it would appropriate to review the sidelining of the "heart of the Gospel," the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone - a doctrine Martin Luther described as "The doctrine of the standing or falling of the Christian Church."

It's appropriate that I mention Martin Luther today in this context. On October the 31st we celebrated Reformation day as those churches who trace their apostolic roots through the 16th C Reformation. What is remembered is the nailing of the ninety five theses upon the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. on Oct 31st, 1517, initiating the Protestant Reformation. This year is also a significant anniversary - the anniversary of Luther's death exactly 450 years ago.

Romans 1:16 and 17 was a significant text that enabled Luther to clear away the fog of centuries; so that he understood the gospel for the first time

In Romans 1:16 and 17 the apostle Paul states that "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written ,'But the righteous man shall live by faith.'"

A question that arises from this text, one of several, is just what this righteousness of God is. This is a vital question for the doctrine of justification. Is this the Triune God's attribute of righteousness? Or is it the Righteousness of Christ, resulting from His passive and active obedience on earth? And just how does this righteousness avail to man so that he may be justified and therefore live?

The answer of Luther and the other classical Reformers to these questions was that it was the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ obtained in his active and passive obedience. And it avails to man through faith as an instrument that lays hold of this alien righteousness. God in this way justifies the sinner - both forgives his sins and declares him righteous forever. He can do this because Christ died as a substitute for the actual sins of the believer and at the same time God imputes or reckons the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ to the man who so exercises faith. This faith itself is a gift of God that flows from His sovereign regeneration. This, in summary, is the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone. And the reason that men and women were prepared to defend this doctrine even at the cost of their life's blood was because they understood it as the heart of the gospel. This gospel being the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes.

Other schemes that implied the infusion of a perfect righteousness that made a person intrinsically righteous at baptism or the idea that the faith that justifies is itself a work of evangelical obedience meriting righteousness have been consistently rejected by those who trace their theology back to the Bible in the line of the 16th Century Reformation. To tamper with the evangelical doctrine is to tamper with the way of salvation and to introduce another gospel.

The heart of the gospel has been sidelined in New Zealand.

Anyone even mildly acquainted with this debate will know that there is a major dispute between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism over the issue of justification. But what is perhaps more important , and which is not so widely realized, is that there is major dispute within the evangelical Christian world as well, over the meaning and the importance of a biblical view of justification.

One example of this is the uncritical way evangelicals now think they can do evangelism with the Roman Catholic Church. The Challenge Weekly reported on the last March for Jesus where 70,000 Christians took part, in their June the 5th issue. The article was prefaced by the observation that, "This year for the first time, the Roman Catholic Church was officially involved in the event." The subtitle talked about the march in terms of "an unprecedented expression of Christian unity." And the Rev. John Fulford of the Evangelical Fellowship of New Zealand described the event as a "tremendous opportunity for a declaration to towns and cities by Christians of their unity in evangelism."

What this displays is an uncritical acceptance of a 'gospel' that contains a radically different idea of justification than that which Protestants have traditionally believed the Bible teaches. And because Justification by Faith Alone is the heart of the Gospel and Roman Catholics reject this biblical doctrine, a logical conclusion must follow that the Gospel has lost its heart. If we can really present the gospel in a unified way with Romans Catholics, then either the Reformers were sadly mistaken or the full Gospel is no longer alive and well in the Evangelical world. This is an organ transplant that has to be rejected

Not just a New Zealand problem

This new ecumenicism is not just a New Zealand phenomenon. One very important event that happened in 1994 was the signing and publishing of the book Evangelicals and Catholics together: Towards a common Mission. eds. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Word Publishing: Dallas, 1995). Charles Colson, James Packer and Mark Noll, avowed Protestant evangelicals, join Roman Catholic writers to, in their words, promote "the common task of evangelising the non-believing world....The aim is to proclaim Christ the Saviour together." It is true that Packer does not see this document as admitting that the official Roman Catholic position on the gospel is the correct one. But the conclusions of the paper show in the joint statement that Roman Catholics are considered Christians and therefore not to be proselytised.

It is also true that there will now be joint 'missions' into Roman Catholic areas of the world, but as Ian Murray points out in the Banner of Truth magazine, "But the question is, What price is being paid by evangelicals to secure the opening and the hoped-for gains? Is there a quid pro quo? We believe there is. It is that the evangelicals are now to treat the Church of Rome and its members as Christians." The acceptance of the Roman Catholic church as a church that preaches the gospel, has long been evident with the Billy Graham organization. He has sometimes refused to conduct campaigns if the Roman Catholics would not be involved.

To be a Christian is to be justified and to be justified is to be declared righteous. To describe this process is to describe the heart of the gospel. How was it that the evangelical community arrived at our present point where the heart of the gospel becomes optional for understanding salvation?

What has brought this state of affairs about in evangelicalism?

We need a brief survey of church history since the days of Martin Luther to begin to understand this process.

We need to begin with Jacob Arminius, a Dutch Reformed, 16/17th Century Theology Professor at the University of Leyden who introduced a new theology with implications that led to a review of the doctrine of Justification in Protestant circles.

Later followers of Arminius taught the following scheme of justification.

  1. The purpose of Christ's work was to offer God a work that would obtain for believers in general the repeal of the Old Law that condemns and to replace it with a milder law, which demands only evangelical obedience.
  1. The thing imputed for righteousness is, then the sinners sincere faith, humble penitence and striving to do his duty, which God accepts, for Christ's sake, in place of a perfect righteousness. The imputed righteousness of Christ is therefore not required.
  1. On the atonement, the Arminians taught that Christ did not pay the price for the actual sins of men on the cross. He didn't have to endure what man should have endured. It was only by divine appointment, that his sacrificial death took the place of a penalty and as such had the effect of reconciling God to man and procuring the forgiveness of sins.

John Wesley, and the 18th C Wesleyan Arminians who followed, adapted the Arminian scheme. They were uncomfortable with any idea that works could be involved in the application of salvation, and wanted to stress the role of faith.

  1. They say that faith is imputed as the believer's justifying righteousness. Justification for them is simply pardon.
  1. They agree that faith is simply resting on Christ alone for their salvation. But how can faith which simply receives what Christ has done be itself possessing justifying virtue? Their answer is to say that Christ won this too on the cross so that the act of faith would carry this justifying virtue. Faith is accepted as a substitute for a whole and complete righteousness. Again this scheme avoids the need for the imputed righteousness of Christ.

In the 19th Century Charles Grandison Finney helped to ensure that these ideas were nurtured in his century and in the century to come.

  1. Finney in his Systematic Theology quite openly calls the Protestant Reformation doctrine of Justification, "another gospel." (p. 329). And his gospel certainly is another gospel. Again he owes his insights to Jacob Arminius.
  1. To quote Finney, "..nothing is acceptable to God, as a condition of justification, and of consequent salvation, but a repentance that implies a return to full obedience to the moral law."(p. 338) In other words, as he has already said, "Sanctification is a condition of justification."(p. 327).
  1. There has to be holiness prior to justification. True this faith that is exercised involves the work of the Holy Spirit, but it involves also the act of the human will. Without this sanctifying faith, you cannot be justified. Men, he says in his book True and False Repentance (p. 61), "are treated as if they were righteous on account of their faith and works of faith."
  1. Justification is also not said to be complete until you die, perseverance being a condition of justification.

The cumulative teaching of these similar schemes yield the following ideas.

  1. Justifying righteousness is equated with faith, not the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  1. Justification is restricted to pardon.
  1. Justification is incomplete until death. You may lose your salvation and therefore your justification.
  1. Regeneration, and therefore justification, is not a sovereign act of God, but only occurs when you decide to exercise faith in co-operation with the Holy Spirit.

The emphasis in preaching such a 'gospel' is therefore to elicit a faith (which itself contains a justifying virtue), that will enable regeneration. It is not to elicit a faith that finds acceptance with God solely on the basis of Christ's substitutionary atonement enabling both a forgiveness of all sin past present and future; and at the same time an imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ to the believer.

These ideas surface in the preaching of Billy Graham, who acknowledges Finney's importance in his own ministry. As one example of this influence, in a sermon on the New Birth (Billy Graham speaks on issues of life and death, 1982, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Minneapolis, p. 23) Graham quite openly states, "But God is powerless to give us this new life against our will. We must be ready to receive Christ as Lord and Saviour with all our hearts. Then the miracle of the new birth takes place." We must act by exercising faith and only then will God regenerate us. Classical Protestantism has always taught that regeneration is the sovereign act of God and precedes faith which itself is a gift of God, 100% grace.

Although there are differences, there are underlying ideas in this new 'gospel,' that make the embracing of Roman Catholic theology easier for the modern evangelical. Like the Roman Catholic scheme, this 'gospel' is subjectivist. It does not need the imputed righteousness of Christ because faith itself contains justifying virtue. Although the steps are different than the Roman Catholic system, both stress Man's will is decisive as long as he follows the prescribed steps.

Roman Catholicism.

The righteousness that avails before God in the Roman Catholic scheme is not the evangelical obedience or the faith as righteousness of the Arminian. Righteousness is infused through baptism when the baby is baptised, making the person actually righteous and thereby accepted before God on the basis of this intrinsic righteousness. That justification is then increased as faith co-operates with good works thus equipping the Roman Catholic for heaven. In common with the evangelical Arminian, the righteousness that avails before God is not the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But this alone would not enable the evangelical Arminian to embrace Roman Catholicism. There is another factor that enables evangelicals to accept Roman Catholics as partners in evangelism today. And that is the creed 'doctrine divides.' In the same booklet of sermons, Billy Graham has this to say in a sermon entitled What God can do for You. "The next step is faith. 'Trust in the Lord'. Notice that nothing is said about doctrine or theology. We are to trust in the Person - the Lord Jesus Christ."(p. 26). Modern evangelical scholarship gives impetus to this direction.

The Dictionary of Paul and his letters, published by IVP says this of itself on the back cover, " The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters takes its place alongside the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels in presenting the fruit of evangelical New Testament Scholarship at the end of the twentieth century. " Alistair McGrath, in his article on justification, presents the three views on the centrality or importance of justification in recent Pauline Scholarship. McGrath himself, I would suggest, is orthodox in this area.

One is that Justification by Faith is central to Paul.

A second is that it is a subsidiary idea.

"The real emphasis of Paul's thought thus lies elsewhere than justification." For R.P Martin this is reconciliation with God and for E.P Sanders, believing participation in Christ.

A Third view is that Justification is one of a number of ways of thinking about or visualising what God has achieved for believers through Christ.

It only becomes one way of expressing the core of the gospel, and so then becomes a metaphor alongside other equally legitimate metaphors like reconciliation for example. Justification by Faith alone therefore becomes an optional but not necessary way of explaining the gospel message - in other words of preaching the content of the gospel.

McGrath offers no critique or rejection of these positions. Such scholarship is taught in evangelical theological colleges as valid. The net result of these two last views must be to sideline the heart of the gospel. If this is happening, and we know that it is, then we have to accept that there is something very destructive going on to the cause of Christ. I say then that we have a great task ahead of us.

And this task isn't motivated by a party spirit or a desire to criticise someone else's theology. Rather it is has to be motivated by a love of souls. Only the Gospel, Paul called my Gospel, the Gospel, whose heart is the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, will be used of God to save sinners. Many now are imperilled because the good news about Jesus Christ has been sidelined or obscured. This is why I said that we must not only argue for the gospel with unbelievers, but argue for the gospel in the professing church in our land. I think it would be not too much to say that we need a Reformation, a great revival of biblical Christianity as much in our day as in Luther's day.

If the gospel has a content and if that content is centred on a forensic justification that entails the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of an alien righteousness, then this is a subject of far more than academic interest. We have compelling reasons for aggressively overturning any competing system that obscures the gospel to the extent that lives are imperilled.

All other schemes of justification as well as being unscriptural rest acceptance by God with our own subjective character. It is either in the Roman Catholic system an infused righteousness and therefore an intrinsic righteousness or in the new evangelical view, faith as righteousness or an evangelical obedience. These views require something of our own goodness to precede acceptance with God.

But the gospel is not that. Our acceptance with God is all of grace. "For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9).

The received Protestant position maintains a biblical view of the greatness of God. Such a view was that of John Newton who wrote the popular hymn amazing grace. "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed."

Can we do anything?

We can and must re-emphasise the doctrine of scripture on this great subject. There is no doubt, that things have gone so far that it is not being overly dramatic to say that we need a New Reformation. Another gospel is abroad that is not the power of God unto salvation. The imperfect righteousness of an evangelical obedience will not avail before God. Only the perfect and complete righteousness won by Christ's active obedience in fulfilling the Law of Moses and in passively dying upon the cross in our stead will avail on the day of judgement. Yes the sidelining of the doctrine of Justification by faith alone is a matter of eternal life and eternal death.

G.H.Milne.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised November 96 / Copyright 1996