Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate

Reading the comments online over the role of our works following John Piper’s words in his foreword for Thomas Schreiner can be a little confusing. The reality is, the comments you read are the tip of an iceberg. Under the water there is a vast labyrinth of debate over biblical, systematic, and historical theology. My goal, in this post, is to give you a snapshot of that labyrinth, as succinctly as I can. The end will include a recommended bibliography.

(Dates are approximate)

The list could go on for pages and pages, but hopefully this helps give a snapshot of what’s going on below the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t included here any of the response to this view, particularly that of Kline and his followers. Kline was the most vocal critique. However, Kline made some fundamental errors and intentionally rejected parts of the confession regarding the Covenant of Works. Thus his followers, though correct of justification by faith alone, are off the mark on other areas that make their response somewhat ineffective. A lot of what you’ll see online is argumentation between these two schools of thought, focused in WTS and WSC. I don’t fully side with either, though WSC does get sola fide correct.

In a subsequent post I will be reviewing Gaffin’s book and referring to this timeline. The key issue in this debate is the Covenant of Works/covenantal merit. The law/gospel antithesis is the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace distinction. When that is rejected, one must re-interpret what justification apart from works means. These men do so by arguing that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God. However, as James says, we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).

It all starts with the rejection of the Covenant of Works.

[T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.

Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.

Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186

Recommended Reading:

  1. The Current Justification Controversy O. Palmer Robertson
  2. A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy John W. Robbins
  3. Faith, Obedience, and Justification Samuel E. Waldron
  4. The Doctrine of Justification John Owen
  5. Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Be Saved? John R. Robbins
  6. Can the Presbyterian Church in America Be Saved? Sean Gerety
  7. The Changing of the Guard Mark W. Karlberg
  8. Christianity & Neo-Liberalism Paul Elliot
  9. The Emperor Has No Clothes Stephen Cunha
  10. Not Reformed At All John W. Robbins & Sean Gerety

29 thoughts on “Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate

  1. markmcculley

    Gaffin’s thesis is that there is a future aspect to the justification of a sinner. His assumption is that it is faith (not election, and not legal imputation) which unites a sinner to Christ. It is God who gives the faith; it is God who gives the works; therefore it seems right to Gaffin to condition justification on the faith and works of the elect sinner. Gaffin does not tell us what gospel must be the object of the faith which unites to Christ. Nor does he tell us how imperfect works would have to be to miss justification and be condemned.

    Gaffin: “Typically in the Reformation tradition the hope of salvation is expressed in terms of Christ’s righteousness, especially as imputed to the believer…however, I have to wonder if ‘Christ in you’ is not more prominent as an expression of evangelical hope…” p110 Gaffin wants to say both are his hope. Part of his hope is sanctification defined as something other than justification from sin, but as power over against sin despite our “incomplete progress, flawed by our continued sinning”.

    Gaffin affirms many good and right things about imputation. For example, on p 51, he lists 3 options for the ground of justification. A. Christ’s own righteousness, complete and finished in his obedience…B. the union itself, the fact of the relationship with Christ…c. the obedience being produced by the transforming Spirit in those in union. Gaffin rightly concludes that “the current readiness to dispense with imputation” results from taking the last two options as the ground of justification.

    But Gaffin always has a but, a not yet. Though we are justified now (because faith in something, even in the Arminian version of the “gospel”, unites us to Jesus), Gaffin also teaches a justification by sight, conditioned on works God causes us to do. . Instead of reading the “according to works” texts as having to do with the distinction between dead works (Hebrews 6:1,9:14) and “fruit for God” (Romans 7:4), Gaffin conditions assurance in future justification on imperfect but habitual working. Instead of saying that works motivated by fear of missing justification are unacceptable to God, Gaffin teaches a justification which is contingent on faith and works.

    Gaffin follows his mentors John Murray and Norman Shepherd in taking Romans 2:13 as describing Christians. The hope for future justification is not Christ’s death, resurrection, and intercession alone. Denying that law-gospel antithesis applies anymore after we are Chrsitians, Gaffin teaches an “unbreakable bond between justification and sanctification” in the matter of assurance and hope for future justification. (p 100) Yes, faith (in which gospel?) is the alone instrument, he agrees, yes Christ’s righteousness is the alone ground, he affirms, but at the same time and however, works factor in also. Just remember that these works which factor into your assurance come from God working in you and not from you, remember that they are not “merits”, and Gaffins thinks there is no problem.


    1. I’ll get into this in my review of Gaffin’s book, but just a quick note: Gaffin did not follow Murray on 2:13. He followed Murray on 2:6 and argued Murray was inconsistent on 2:13

      Murray: It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching on this epistle in later chapters. Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture.

      Gaffin: That … I think is to my mind, what needs to be highlighted here. My own view would be that following … well, my own view would be … that … I think Murray is leaving it an open question here. He’s not addressing … he is saying two things. Number one, no conflict with what Paul teaches later in the letter. Number two, whether or not there will be anyone at the final judgment justified by works – as Paul expressed there – is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture. I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said, and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcome. But he does, as you are pointing out, back away from that. But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here … and the question really needs … I can’t reconcile Murray for you on that regard, which is the question I heard you asking me. And I would just accent again that in his understanding of verses 6-11, he has broken with a large number of Reformed interpreters in arguing that that describes a real judgment scenario with a positive outcome. Which is also how I would understand verse 13 … and well, you can ask Mr. Kinnaird how he understands it.

      AW : I guess my point would simply would be that John Murray did not definitively use this chapter in Romans 2 to teach … you know, a judgment for … let me say it this way, that John Murray did use his understanding in this to affirm a more traditional – if you want to say – a traditional or long held view that Romans chapter two was affirming universal condemnation more than any particular manner in which believers are justified.

      RG : Sorry about that, I do have to differ with Y
      AW : O.K., that is fine …

      RG : I think in verses 6 to 11 he does break, if you will with others, Charles Hodge, Haldane, in arguing that the judgment Aaccording to works@ is not hypothetical on it’s positive side… but will have a positive … it’s describing a positive, a real positive scenario in the case of believers. And see that I think is really the issue here. Let’s concede what Murray says about the verse 13 which … this is not … this is not a … this is a point that I am willing to be corrected on, that verse 13 does not describe an actual, an actual scenario at the final judgment. You still have the final judgment Aaccording to works@ as a reality, according to Murray.
      – See more at: http://www.trinityfoundation.org/day3_session_1.php#sthash.jyze96c1.dpuf

      Liked by 1 person

      1. markmcculley

        Thanks. This exchange makes me think I may have asked you before about Paul Helm’s essay on Romans 2. Helm’s not concerned with the Confessional language in this particular blog post. http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2011/07/romans-2-and-3-one-step-at-time-dear.html

        I do look forward to your review of Faith/Sight. Gaffin asks some of the most important questions. But his answers are wrong, and often assume stuff he doesn’t seen to notice that he’s assuming.


    2. markmcculley

      Moo has lately changed his mind to follow Gaffin (and Piper and Schreiner)
      “Justification in Galatians”, p 172, Moo’s essay in the Carson f (Understanding the Times)—

      Nor is there any need to set Paul’s “juridicial” and “participationist” categories in opposition to one another (see Gaffin, By Faith Not By Sight, p 35-41).

      The problem of positing a union with Christ that precedes the erasure of our legal condemnation before God ( making justification the product of union with Christ) CAN BE ANSWERED IF WE POSIT, WITHIN THE SINGLE WORK OF CHRIST, TWO STAGES OF “JUSTIFICATION”, one involving Christ’s payment of our legal debt–the basis for our regeneration–and second our actual justification-stemming from our union with Christ.”


      1. That’s not the point Gaffin makes. His two stages of justification are resurrection of the inner man (regeneration) and resurrection of the outer man (glorification). Moo is just wrestling with how the cross relates to our justification before we are justified, which is different. I’m not sure how Moo is connecting the two. He seems to be confusing Gaffin’s distinction between historia salutis and ordo salutis with his distinction between justification already and justification not yet. Furthermore, Gaffin’s point/focus in the pages Moo references is that justification and sanctification are both blessings of Christ’s resurrection given in union with Christ. In that short quote Moo seems confused.


      2. I just found the full quote. Moo is not referencing Gaffin on the “two stages of justification” comment. On that he references Henri Blocher. His reference to Gaffin is about juridical and participationist both being contemplated in union.


  2. markmcculley

    I would suggest you add the trilogy of essay collections by Mark Karlberg.

    Engaging Westminster Calvinism, 2013

    Federalism and the Westminster Tradition, 2006

    Gospel Grace; the Modern Day Controversy 2003

    Even though Karlberg agrees with you (and is even more dogmatic about the point) that it all starts with a denial that God promised Immortality for probationary obedience, he does recognize that the folks of the Protestant Reformed denomination (Engelsma, Hoeksema) deny “the covenant of works for Adam” and yet maintain the law-gospel distinction.

    Engelsma–Highlighting the difference between Hoeksema and the men of the Federal Vision is the fact that, although they deny that Adam could have merited higher, eternal life, the advocates of the Federal Vision allow that Adam might, nevertheless, have obtained the higher life for himself and the race by “maturing” into that life through his obedience. Hoeksema would have condemned this notion as heartily as he did the notion of earning. The appeal to Hoeksema’s rejection of the covenant of works by the men of the Federal Vision is mistaken because Hoeksema’s fundamental objection against the covenant of works was different from that of the proponents of the Federal Vision. Hoeksema’s objection held against Adam’s obtaining higher life for himself and the human race in any manner whatever. Viewing the covenant with Adam in light of God’s eternal decree to glorify Himself by realizing His covenant in Jesus Christ, Hoeksema insisted that only the Son of God in human flesh could obtain the higher and better heavenly and eternal life for Himself and elect humanity, in the way of His cross and resurrection.


    I write this not in defense of the Protestant Reformed position on all covenants being about friendship. Indeed, as a credobaptist, I very much reject their presumptive regeneration view (and agree with your critique of the Protestant Reformed). But I write this because I think it’s important to notice that justification by our works is not inherent in the rejection of “the covenant of works”. Kline is wrong when he assumes this. And Mark Karlberg is only being fair when he notices the exception (p 30-32, “Conflating Faith and Works in Final Judgment, in Engaging Westminster Calvinism..

    Bolt and David Gordon also notice the Protestant Reformed exception in their respective essays in By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of JustificationMar 6, 2007 by Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters

    It’s too bad that the books published by Robbins don’t have as much credibility as they should. The Cunha critique of Gaffin is good, despite the limitations. And it’s even worse that there is a near black list of the Steve Fernandez critique of Schreiner/ Caneday (Free Justification) is not very well known. But that being the case, you should include the pro-Kline volume The law is not of Faith (Westminster California) in your bibliography, along with the crossway By Faith Alone volume.

    The Trinity Foundation, Mark Karlberg, Fernandez books have been shoved to the margins. But the questions they ask remain, and I commend you for noticing that the Reformation fight continues for faith alone in Christ’s death as that which justifies the ungodly. Lutherans seem to know the difference between law and grace, even if they don’t know anything about “the covenant of works”.


    1. Yes, thank you. I’ve read the second and just forgot to add them to the list.

      If I have time I will respond to Hoeksema’s rejection of the Covenant of Works, but a simple response is that it does not hold up. The Covenant of Works is necessary to maintain the law/gospel antithesis.

      Also, the Fernandez book is on my list, thanks to your recommendation in the other post. As for TLNF and By Faith Alone… they are a mixed bag that confuse the debate quite a bit.

      “Lutherans seem to know the difference between law and grace, even if they don’t know anything about “the covenant of works”.”

      That’s because they embrace paradox/contradiction and do not claim to offer a solution. That’s what distinguished reformed from Lutheran: systematics (though on this point, modern “reformed” follow Van Til is embracing paradox/contradiction). In Luther’s commentary on Galatians, he tries to answer the scholastics regarding the righteousness that comes from works, but he fails. He cannot answer them correctly because he has no doctrine of the covenant of works. Instead he is influenced by Augustine’s incorrect reading of Lev 18:5 and sounds a lot like what is opposed above. In the end he throws up his hands and says even if he can’t figure it out, he’ll cling to the clear statements in Scripture regarding justification. The point is that he did not have a systematic answer. A systematic answer requires the Covenant of Works.

      Here we shall take the time to enter upon the objections which our opponents raise against the doctrine of faith. There are many passages in the Bible that deal with works and the reward of works which our opponents cite against us in the belief that these will disprove the doctrine of faith which we teach…

      In our dealings with God the work is worth nothing without faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). The sacrifice of Abel was better than the sacrifice of Cain, because Abel had faith… The Holy Spirit speaks of faith in different ways in the Sacred Scriptures. Sometimes He speaks of faith independently of other matters. When the Scriptures speak of faith in the absolute or abstract, faith refers to justification directly. But when the Scripture speaks of rewards and works it speaks of compound or relative faith. We will furnish some examples. Galatians 5:6, “Faith which worketh by love.” Leviticus 18:5, “Which if a man do, he shall live in them.” Matthew 19:17, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” Psalm 37:27, “Depart from evil, and do good.” In these and other passages where mention is made of doing, the Scriptures always speak of a faith-ful doing, a doing inspired by faith. “Do this and thou shalt live,,” means: First have faith in Christ, and Christ will enable you to do and to live…

      In this way will we correctly interpret all those 111passages that seem to support the righteousness of works. The Law is truly observed only through faith. Hence, every “holy,” “moral” law-worker is accursed.

      Supposing that this explanation will not satisfy the scholastics, supposing that they should completely wrap me up in their arguments (they cannot do it), I would rather be wrong and give all credit to Christ alone. Here is Christ. Paul, Christ’s apostle, declares that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). I hear with my own ears that I cannot be saved except by the blood and death of Christ. I conclude, therefore, that it is up to Christ to overcome my sins, and not up to the Law, or my own efforts. If He is the price of my redemption, if He was made sin for my justification, I don’t give a care if you quote me a thousand Scripture passages for the righteousness of works against the righteousness of faith. I have the Author and Lord of the Scriptures on my side. I would rather believe Him than all that riffraff of “pious” law-workers.



      1. markmcculley

        Perhaps there is more than one “systematic answer”. We should not assume too soon that answers which disagree with ours are not “systematic”. As you have suggested elsewhere, there is quite a bit of difference between your position (that the life promised not immortality but continued temporal existence) and the more majority view about “the covenant of works”

        Even elect Gentiles (who were never under the Mosaic covenant) are justified because of Christ’s bearing the curse of the Mosaic law. Some who reject the need for vicarious law-keeping imputed are Socinians who deny the need for any law satisfaction at all. If forgiveness is sovereign, they claim, there is no need to satisfy the law at all in any way, Thus the Socinians say, if there is any need to satisfy the law, then there cannot be any forgiveness. They play off God’s sovereignty against God’s righteousness.

        But the Protestant Reformed are not doing that. Neither were Piscator and other Porestant scholatics who disagreed. Christ’s death can keep you from death, they were told. But if you want life from the law, then Christ’s death won’t get you that, because for that, you need to be imputed with Christ’s Mosaic law-keeping.

        But what is being kept from death if not life? (Here the immortality vs life for another day question comes back) The tradition seems to say that Christ’s death only gets us back to where Adam was, which was life on probation, which was life only because no sins were yet counted toward us. The majority tradition says that Adam could have gotten immortality if only he had kept the law (the tradition even tends to say that Adam was keeping the Sabbath, since it equates “moral law” with part of the Mosaic law), and therefore the tradition says that Christ got immortality for us not by His death but by His law-keeping.

        Calvin—“In His death and resurrection, all things are furnished to us, expiation of sins, freedom from condemnation, satisfaction, victory over death, the attainment of righteousness, and the hope of a blessed immortality.”

        I am very glad when those who teach the catechism at least don’t deny that the blood (the death of Christ) is any part of Christ’s righteousness. Some folks do in fact teach that Christ’s death is the new covenant remission, but that the Mosaic law-keeping is the righteousness

        While agreeing with Calvin and Romans 4 that we can equate forgiveness and justification, we must teach that justification entitles us to all the positive blessings of salvation, not only forgiveness of sins but access to God and every other blessing. But it remains an open question (to me) if what we say about the kind of life Adam was promised changes what we must say about the kind of life which results from the justification which results from Christ’s obedience.


        1. As you have suggested elsewhere, there is quite a bit of difference between your position (that the life promised not immortality but continued temporal existence) and the more majority view about “the covenant of works”

          You have misunderstood my position. I never said that. The life promised to Adam was immortality.

          Even elect Gentiles (who were never under the Mosaic covenant) are justified because of Christ’s bearing the curse of the Mosaic law.

          Christ fulfilled the moral law as a covenant of works for Gentiles, not the Mosaic Covenant.

          I find the rest of your comments rather confused/confusing.


        2. markmcculley

          Brandon—“I’m still not convinced that Scripture teaches that Adam could have earned eternal life for his offspring” –https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/waldrons-sermons-on-covenant-theology/


        3. Gotcha. That’s a totally different topic. I am convinced Adam could have earned eternal life for himself. I am not convinced that Adam’s successful probation would have necessarily earned eternal life for those he represented in the way that Christ’s obedience earned eternal life for those he represented. But I’m not prepared to elaborate on that at this point. Still have to think through it more.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. markmcculley

    Lee Irons—“Faith is related to justification not as a condition but as a means. Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology or in the Reformed confessions. Paul himself never uses the prepositional phrase dia + accusative, “justified because of faith.” Instead he uses dia+ genitive or ek + genitive, “justified by faith.” Faith is not the ground of justification, but the means by which we are justified, by which we rest upon Christ and receive the gift of his imputed righteousness. ..We do not receive the righteousness of Christ by works of obedience, even by Spirit-wrought works of obedience. And even faith itself is a sovereign gift of God. So it is simply wrong to say that faith is the condition of justification.” http://upper-register.typepad.com/blog/2015/10/faith-alone-and-the-importance-of-precise-terminology.html


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  9. markmcculley

    James 2:17 says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

    John Piper– Dead faith doesn’t justify anybody; therefore, faith without works is not the kind of faith that justifies anybody. These works are — here’s where it starts to get difficult for people, but let me see if I can help — these works are necessary.

    “Works play no role whatsoever in justification, but are the necessary fruit of justifying faith.”

    Hebrews says, “Strive for peace” — strive is the key word — “and [strive] for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). We won’t see the Lord Jesus — that is, we won’t be finally saved — without this “striving for holiness.”

    What is that? Why is that? The apostle John says, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Or he says later, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” That’s how we know; it’s confirmed. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14) — in other words, you haven’t been born again, you haven’t been united to Christ, you don’t have saving faith because it’s not confirmed by love.

    Obedience and love are the necessary confirmations that we are born again, truly united to Christ by faith alone. Here’s the way Paul says it: “God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).




  10. markmcculley

    John Piper–Works are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. But when James affirms ‘justification by works’ he means that works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies..…For James, ‘justification by works’ means “maintaining a right standing with God by faith.”

    John Piper—The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was convened as a kind of “counter-reformation” to the Protestant Reformation. Here the Catholic views of justification were expressed so as to protect against the errors and dangers perceived in the Reformers’ teaching. You can hear their concern in these excerpts from the Council’s Decree on Justification:

    No one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments. (Chapter XI)
    If any one saith, that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or, that the ten commandments nowise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema. (Canon XIX)
    If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church . . . let him be anathema. (Canon XX)
    If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema. (Canon XXI)

    John Piper—All four of those statements are legitimate warnings against an unbiblical view of justification by faith alone. Both Reformers and Roman Catholics were zealous to preserve the biblical connection between justification by faith and a life of obedient love and righteousness.


  11. markmcculley

    The notion of two stages of justification is not new to Gaffin and Beale. —James K Smith–That the English Puritan John Flavel constantly appears in this new collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson will surprise no one. He fits perfectly in the communion of Protestant saints that populate her essays, appearing alongside John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and Oliver Cromwell. But there is a particular idea from Flavel that keeps recurring throughout this collection, and it tells us something about the burden of Robinson’s project. As she recounts again and again in different chapters, Flavel entertained the idea of a two-stage judgment: he “considers the thought that we might all be judged twice, once when we die and again when the full consequences of our lives have played themselves out.” The notion depends on a unique intersection of eternity and history. Appointed once to die, we face the judgment, but the judgment in eternity takes account of time’s arrow in history. It’s like your soul gets a callback when the repercussions of your life have played themselves out across subsequent generations. The end of your life is not the end of your responsibility.



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