The Reformation was, at its most foundational level, a recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Medieval Roman Catholic dogma had buried the Scripture's doctrine of the salvation of sinners under a load of man-centered and church-centered refuse, so much so that faith was turned from Christ to the Church, and the people were urged to follow the path of faithfulness in order to achieve salvation. It was argued by Catholic theologians that salvation is of grace, that is, a grace begun in the reception of baptism, but continued by faithful adherence to the doctrines and practices of the Church. At the end of life, salvation would be granted to those who co-operated best with this grace, thus meriting the favor of God. The system was an ingenious conflation of grace and works, and was fatally wrong.
The Reformers understood the deadly nature of this synergistic formula and cried out for a recovery of the Bible's doctrine of full and free grace. They argued that the salvation of fallen mankind is wholly gracious from beginning to end. Its source is found in God's eternal covenant of salvation, its accomplishment is recorded in the history of salvation revealed in the Scriptures, and its application comes by means of the preaching of the Word of God, and it is always the work of God.
Man's part is only as the recipient of a gift, planned, purchased and provided by Divine initiative and action alone. When a sinner stands in the judgment, his only hope of salvation is found in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, imputed to him apart from any human effort or work. Justification is not the result of man's co-operation with the grace of God; it is rather a result of divine initiative. It is reliance on Jesus Christ alone for salvation, by faith alone obtaining salvation. We receive the imputation of Christ's righteousness, his holy obedience to the Law of God, in utter dependence upon his sacrifice for our sins made at Calvary.
The gospel is only about God's work, we simply receive. It is all of grace, all of Christ, and can bring glory only to God. This was the unanimous doctrine of the Reformers and their followers, whether Lutheran, Zwinglian or Calvinist; Swiss, French, German, English, Dutch, Scots, or any other nationality. Salvation is of the Lord.
The Reformed Confessions, products of this powerful international movement, likewise unanimously express this doctrine in careful detail and precise language. Whether one reads the Second Helvetic Confession from Switzerland, or the Heidelberg Catechism from Germany, or the Westminster Confession of Faith (and its child the Second London Baptist Confession of 1677/89) from England, one will find a consistent expression of this formula.
Perhaps the Shorter Catechism expresses it as well as any other in Question and Answer 33: “Q. What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." The Baptist version of this catechism, published in 1693, used exactly the same language.
Luther said justification is the article of a standing or falling church; undoubtedly he was correct. We stand with all of the Reformed, and with the reformation Lutherans, in our glad allegiance to this most fundamental of truths. Without it, we have lost the Gospel itself.
With this unanimity and doctrinal clarity, one would expect that reformed confessional Christians would be immune to misunderstandings or defections in the doctrine of justification, but this is sadly not the case. Our own day has witnessed serious departures from the gospel, so severe that it has become necessary for us to speak out against these attacks on the nature of God's work in the salvation of sinners.
On April 30 and May 1, 2004, the faculty of Westminster Seminary California hosted a conference to address these issues, and with great forcefulness and clarity expounded and defended the historic scriptural and Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. So great was the interest in the topic that the entire chapel was filled, and it was necessary to turn people away! I had the privilege of attending this conference, and wish to provide you with a report.
The conference began with Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California, briefly setting the stage by explaining why the faculty believes that it is necessary to declare and defend the historic Reformed position on justification. He hinted that there are serious defections abroad, striking at the very root of the faith, and that the desire of these men was to express as clearly as possible the position taught in the Word of God and received by the Reformed churches.
After him, Dr. Steve Baugh, associate professor of New Testament, came to the pulpit and explained in some detail the three major movements or individuals whose teaching is disturbing the churches.
1] The first is called "The New Perspective on Paul," proposed by a well-known group of New Testament professors who argue that Luther and the reformers misunderstood the Apostle Paul and his teaching about Second Temple Judaism (the name for the Jewish theological doctrines of the first Christian century). They assert that Judaism was not a works-based religion, but was gracious. Protestants have misunderstood Paul, and have formulated a faulty doctrine of salvation based on this misunderstanding, they say.
2] The second movement is centred on the writings of a former professor of theology at a seminary in the east, who has recently written a popular book arguing that faith involves faithfulness - we get into the covenant by grace, but maintain our status, by faithfulness.
3] The third movement is really an extension of this man's views, promoted at a pastors conference in the South and called by its proponents the "Federal Vision" theology.
Dr. Baugh, using the words of the different men promoting these views, demonstrated the serious nature of their attacks on justification. It was frightening to hear the expressions of representatives of each of these groups read to us - the contrast with orthodoxy was astounding. The evening ended soberly as we reflected on the serious nature of the issues before us.
The second day was full of presentations. The first full-length lecture was delivered by Dr. Michael S. Horton, professor of apologetics and historical theology, who addressed the topic "Covenant, Law and Gospel." He showed us especially the importance of a clear distinction between Law and Gospel - his comment about a friend's evaluation of much preaching as "Golawspel" was memorable - a distinction maintained by all of the Lutherans, continental Reformed and English puritans. He urged us all to maintain this distinction carefully. His address was profound, thought provoking, and exceedingly timely.
Next was Dr. R. Scott Clark, associate professor of historical theology, who spoke to us about the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to sinners. I must say that the Saviour and his work were highly magnified in this presentation; one will long remember Dr. Clark's comment that when the Day of Judgment comes, he wants to hide behind Jesus Christ. He alone is our refuge, our only righteousness.
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey followed with a presentation on Sola Fide, that is, "Faith Alone." Dr. Godfrey is a first-rate reformation scholar, and a winsome preacher. His lecture was a wonderful demonstration, from the book of Romans, of the unique function of faith in justification. Our works, even when defined as faithfulness to the covenant, have no part in our justification. With empty hands we cling to Christ.
Dr. Hywel Jones, professor of pastoral theology concluded the formal presentations with an outstanding explanation of the distinction that must be maintained between justification and sanctification. Too often, the lines between the two are blurred, with deadly confusion the result. Relying predominantly on the book of Galatians, Dr. Jones demonstrated that the reformed confessional teaching has always carefully expressed the distinction between the two without undermining the proper place of the pursuit of holiness of life in the believer.
He quoted Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who said that when we preach the gospel, if we are not accused of antinomianism, we have not properly preached the gospel. Since Paul himself was the object of such accusations, one must agree with the Doctor; this is how we must preach the gospel, while always urging believers to pursue holiness.
The final session of the day was about an hour of questions and answers, moderated by Dr. Godfrey and including all of the faculty members who had addressed the conference. The questions submitted were very helpful, though the answers were even more so.
As I sat in the audience throughout the Conference, I was profoundly thankful for the clarity of the issues considered and addressed. These men were not promoting an agenda focused on minor issues; they were addressing the very foundation of our Christian faith, and doing so with clarity, urgency and poignancy.
It would be difficult to come away from the conference without profound gratitude to God for giving such a group of men to the church. They love Christ, His gospel, and His church, and they are willing to stand for Him. All of the sessions were taped, and I would urge everyone to obtain the tapes and listen to them carefully. You will be immensely helped in your understanding of the gospel, and you will be immunized from the deadly virus of theological defection making its way into the churches.
Tapes or CDs may be purchased by writing to Westminster Seminary California, 1725 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido CA92027; sending e-mail to email@example.com; or telephoning (760) 480-8474 ext 122. Please take advantage of this offer.
I am thankful that the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, and the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, is identified with the men of Westminster Seminary California, with their clear, poignant, firm defence of the gospel; their willingness to expose and resist these errors; their clarion call to stand for God's free grace in Christ. By the Lord's grace may it be that we always proclaim the Christ-centred gospel of the Word of God and our Confession of Faith.
Dr. James Renihan is dean of the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies in Escondido, California.