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

    Bnonn Tennant– I have argued that Reformed histrionics over final justification are misguided, being grounded in an obviously mistaken view of faith as a one-time (“synchronic”) act, In response, one reader who agrees with me wrote to express her concerns over the implications of this for the doctrines of regeneration and perseverance—and thus especially for assurance of salvation. What follows is our exchange:–

    If faith is a synchronic event (preceded by the synchronic event of regeneration, followed by the synchronic event of imputation), it is impossible to fall away. You are moved from one box (unregenerate/unbelieving/unjustified) to another (regenerate/believing/justified). This scheme is purely spatial; it has no temporal dimensions, so it doesn’t account for the continued/diachronic exercise of faith.

    No one really thinks that faith is a one-time event. We all agree that it is something that must continue throughout life. It is regeneration and imputation that are one-time events. (I wouldn’t personally speak of imputation this way as I think the word itself is a confused choice to describe our covenantal incorporation into Jesus.) This to say, the Reformed view is not primarily that those who fall away never had faith, but rather that those who fall away were never regenerate. Their not having faith was a result of their not being regenerate: they never had their hearts turned to God,

    https://bnonn.com/does-diachronic-faith-undermine-perseverance-and-regeneration/

    https://bnonn.com/final-justification-unchristian/

    Like

  2. Pingback: Stephen Cunha on Trinity Foundation Radio | Contrast

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