Approaches to Justification within the Federal Vision

The goal of this extremely long post is that of giving as accurate a description of the various approaches to the doctrine of justification that exist within FV circles as I can. I was recently asked to give my thoughts on this subject on a web forum that I was a participant in. I thought that I would share my rough thoughts with my blog readers. I am not sure that I feel qualified to adequately trace the various lines of argumentation in this complex debate. If anyone wants to dispute an aspect of my account, please do so. I am quite open to constructive critique of my representation of the FV.

I see a number of loosely related approaches to justification within FV circles. There are a set of concerns on the table. Some of these concerns are more deeply held by some parties in the conversation, others are held more closely by others.

An Obedient Faith

Firstly, it is important to get some of the background for the FV positions. Perhaps the position of Norman Shepherd is as good a place to start as any.

Norman Shepherd’s concern is to stress that we are only justified by an obedient faith. Our obedience is necessary for justification. However, our obedience is not necessary for justification as the ground for our justification. The ground for our justification is Christ and His righteousness alone. For Shepherd it is not the obedience of faith that justifies, but there can be no faith in the absence of obedience. In this sense obedience is necessary for both faith and justification. A dead faith cannot justify.

At this stage it is important to recognize that Shepherd’s focus is generally more upon justification as a future declaration or as a present state, rather than as an event in the past, at the outset of our Christian lives.

For Shepherd works never should become the ground of our reliance. This must be Christ alone. ‘Works of the Law’ are works undertaken with a view to meriting God’s grace. The perfection of our faith and works cannot provide a secure basis for reliance. Faith must always find the ground of its reliance in Christ. However, genuine faith that finds its ground of reliance in Christ cannot be otherwise than obedient faith.

Works are absolutely necessary for future justification. The righteous and the wicked will ultimately be separated on the basis of their works. God does not save men on the grounds of what they do, but neither does He save men irrespective of what they do. Repentance is absolutely necessary for future justification. Shepherd writes:—

The biblical stress upon the indispensable necessity of repentance is reflected in the language and teaching of the Westminster standards. The Shorter Catechism, Qu. 85, asks “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin.” Virtually the same question is asked in the Larger Catechism, Qu. 153. The answer given is that to escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin God “requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.” The expanded answer of the Larger Catechism is the same in content except that repentance is placed before faith. The Shorter Catechism defines what is meant by “repentance unto life” in Qu. 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” This is the repentance expressly said to be required for sinners if they are to escape the wrath and curse of God due to them for sin. The Confession of Faith defines “repentance unto life” in the same terms as the Catechisms (XV, 2), and immediately goes on to say that this repentance is indispensably necessary for the forgiveness of sins. “Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (XV, 3).

Repentance and its new obedience are never the ground for our pardon (the ground is purely God’s grace in Christ), but pardon is never received without the presence of repentance and new obedience. The man who is genuinely justified by works in the sense of James 2 or as a doer of the Law in the sense of Romans 2 is not one who is relying on his own righteousness. Rather, his works are to be understood as the operation of faith by love. Shepherd’s views can be found in this article and this set of theses.

Shepherd’s views led to a sharp controversy in the late 70s and early 80s. Some claimed that he was undermining the gospel by his position. Others, including Richard Gaffin, John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, were very supportive of Shepherd.

For many of the FV proponents these concerns are the central concerns in their doctrines of justification. They wish to avoid any sort of separation of faith from faithfulness. It seems to me that these are some of the chief concerns that someone like Steve Schlissel has. These concerns are less pronounced in some of the other FV thinkers. This does not mean that they do not share them; it just means that they are not the focus of their agenda.

Union with Christ

There are another set of concerns that are brought to the table by some FV proponents. This set of concerns is focused on the importance of union with Christ at the heart of justification. There are many current understandings of justification in Reformed circles that focus on the extrinsic transferral of righteousness from Christ’s account to our ‘accounts’ in the act of imputation. A number of the FV proponents see this as a major area of concern. They believe that the centre of our understanding of justification must be upon the reality of union with Christ. Justification is understood as part of the reality of union with Christ.

The FV proponents who hold these concerns see imputation as part of the reality of union with Christ. They often cite theologians like John Calvin and Richard Gaffin in support of this position. In his book, Resurrection and Redemption, Gaffin lays out this position well:—

At the same time, however, various considerations already adduced point to the conclusion that Paul does not view the justification of the sinner (the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) as an act having a discrete structure of its own. Rather, as with Christ’s resurrection, the act of being raised with Christ in its constitutive, transforming character is at the same time judicially declarative; that is, the act of being joined to Christ is conceived of imputatively. In this sense the enlivening action of resurrection (incorporation) is itself a forensically constitutive declaration.

This does not at all mean that Paul qualifies the synthetic character of the justification of the ungodly. The justifying aspect of being raised with Christ does not rest on the believer’s subjective enlivening and transformation (also involved, to be sure, in the experience of being joined to Christ), but on the resurrection-approved righteousness of Christ which is his (and is thus reckoned his) by virtue of the vital union established. If anything, this outlook which makes justification exponential of existential union with the resurrected Christ serves to keep clear what preoccupation with the idea of imputation can easily obscure, namely, that the justification of the ungodly is not arbitrary but according to truth: it is synthetic with respect to the believer only because it is analytic with respect to Christ (as resurrected). Not justification by faith but union with the resurrected Christ by faith (of which union, to be sure, the justifying aspect stands out perhaps the most prominently) is the central motif of Paul’s applied soteriology. (132)

Many Reformed folk have separated the merits of Christ or the righteousness of Christ from Christ Himself. The merits of Christ or His righteousness are given to us by means of extrinsic transfer from one person to another. A number of FV proponents want to stress that Christ’s righteousness is received by means of participation, rather than by means of extrinsic transfer. When we are united to Christ in history, His righteousness becomes our righteousness, His account becomes our account. Talking about transfer of the merit of Christ from His account to our account is misleading. We cannot abstract the benefits of Christ from His Person. We would be better off talking about the transfer of our persons to His Person. The ‘great transfer’, for this approach, is not the placing of Christ’s righteousness to our account, but the transfer of our persons into Christ. Imputation (if we choose to continue talking in terms of it) need not be seen as a transfer at all, but as a statement of the way in which God regards us once we have come to be ‘in Christ’ (i.e. once someone has come to be ‘in Christ’, God regards them as sharing in the status that Christ Himself enjoys).

This is broadly the same position as N.T. Wright holds on this issue. Wright rejects the language of imputation, largely because of the unhelpful baggage that it carries. Wright puts his position this way in Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, pp.120-1:—

The first of these [the status of being ‘in Christ’] is particularly important, and is the theme of verse 9, which sums up a good deal that he says at more length in Romans and Galatians. Paul draws out the contrast, the same contrast he’s been talking about throughout the passage, between those who are regarded as members of God’s covenant people because they possess, and try to keep, the Jewish law, the Torah, and those who are regarded as members of God’s covenant family because of what the Messiah has done. In 2:8 he described the Messiah’s achievement as his ‘obedience, even unto death’; here he describes it as his ‘faithfulness’; but the two mean substantially the same thing. And the way we share in ‘the Messiah’s faithfulness’ is by our ‘faith’. Our belief that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of the world, and our loyalty to him, are the sign and badge that we have a credit balance consisting simply of him, over against all the debits we could ever have from anywhere else. This is Paul’s famous doctrine of ‘justification by faith’, which continues to be a comfort and a challenge to millions around the world.

Many contemporary Reformed people seem to think in the following terms. Christ’s death purchased or merited a series of blessings and privileges on the part of the elect. At the time of conversion the blessings purchased by Christ are applied to the individual believer, the Holy Spirit starts to operate in sanctifying the believer and the rights and privileges of justification, adoption, etc., become the believer’s possession as an individual.

Those who emphasize union with Christ do not like this model. Although people who hold the model above may talk about personal union with Christ (rather than merely legal, ‘external’ union), it is just another of the blessings of salvation, rather than the reality overarching salvation as a whole. The blessings of Christ’s work are generally received in abstraction from His Person. A union with Christ approach teaches, to some degree or other, that we receive the blessings of salvation by participation in Christ as a corporate Person, rather than by an extrinsic transfer from one person to another, or as something purchased by one who remains apart from us.

Thinking in terms of union with Christ has the potential to give us a very different way of thinking about salvation. One does not participate as a detached individual, but as a member. A union with Christ approach is more likely to emphasize the importance of the historia salutis, not merely as that which makes individual salvation a possibility, but as that which our salvation makes us part of. A union with Christ approach is also more likely to come with a high ecclesiology.

An External Ground for Justification

A third concern that a number of FV people bring to the debate is the importance of an extrinsic ground for justification. Some believe that the Reformation doctrine of extrinsic justification has been compromised within Reformed circles by the downplaying of the objectivity of the sacraments. They believe that a restoration of a high view of the sacraments is absolutely essential if we are going to defend the doctrine of justification from becoming grounded on our own works.

To most evangelicals this position seems radically counter-intuitive. Surely a high view of the sacraments was the problem that the Reformation was reacting against in the first place? Although such a reading of the Reformation seems attractive to many, it fails to take account of the high view of the sacraments held by the Reformers themselves. Luther and Calvin both clearly affirmed baptismal regeneration on a number of occasions. Both Luther and Calvin clearly connected Baptism to justification. The Reformers were not being radically inconsistent with themselves in holding a high doctrine of the sacraments. They appreciated that a high doctrine of the Word and sacraments was essential if their doctrine of justification was to be preserved.

The Protestant doctrine of justification declares that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ alone. This is a very liberating truth, provided that we know that God is gracious to us and where Christ is to be found. The Reformation position is that Christ is present in His Church, in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Luther wrote:—

Therefore, he who would find Christ must first of all find the church. How would one know where Christ and his faith were, if one did not know where his believers are? And he who would know something of Christ, must not trust himself, or build his own bridges into heaven through his own reason, but he must go to the church, visit, and ask of the same…for outside of the church is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.

The Holy Christian Church is the principal work of God, for the sake of which all things were made. In the Church, great wonders daily occur, such as the forgiveness of sins, triumph over death,…the gift of righteousness and eternal life.

The problem with the Roman Catholic position was that it offered people Christ in places where He had not promised to be found. People were not clear on where and how to find God’s grace. In addition to this, grace was treated as a depersonalized substance by some. If we are saved by the infusion of a substance called grace a number of problems arise. The personal face of God’s grace is obscured and the object of faith is no longer clear.

The problem that Protestants had with the doctrine of ex opere operato is related to this. The problem with the doctrine was not with the idea that the sacraments confer the grace that they signify, but with the idea that they contain the grace that they signify. Protestants realized that ‘grace’ must be understood as God’s personal favour and the gifts that express this favour, rather than as any sort of substance. If grace is reified or depersonalized we will get into trouble.

Without God as its object, faith cannot survive. Faith must have a clear view of its object if it is to grow. FV proponents argue that baptistic and revivalistic theologies have obscured Christ as the object of our faith. Baptistic theology treats Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the Church primarily as functions of our faith, rather than as places where Christ promises to be genuinely present and where God is gracious to us, irrespective of our internal disposition. Baptism is my act of obedience, an outward sign of my faith; the Lord’s Supper is my subjective remembrance of Christ’s death; the Church is the place where I gather with others who have had shared the same subjective experience of salvation.

There is also a low view of the Word of God in many such circles. The Word is seen to be there to tell us about Jesus; it does not actually form a relationship with Jesus. God’s presence in His own self-revelation is not clearly stressed. One could argue that most of our speech is not used with the primary goal of informing, but with the goal of forming, sustaining and deepening relationship. This is how it is with Scripture. Scripture informs us, but only as part of the greater goal of conveying God’s presence, love, comfort and grace. We need to read Scripture as God’s personal Word to the Church, of which we are members through Baptism into Christ. In many respects, the Bible is like Christ’s love letter to His Bride, the Church. The goal of a love letter is not the conveying of mere objective truths, but the deepening of a relationship.

Far too many people today read the Bible as if it were intended to be a systematic theology, designed to tell us objective truths about God, Christ and salvation. A systematic theology is not designed to form a relationship between the writer and the one who reads it, as a love letter is. Read this way, when the Bible talks about the ‘elect’ it is talking about a particular category of people in the abstract, rather than to a concrete body of people that can be clearly identified — the Church.

Once you have grown accustomed to reading the Bible in this way, you begin to wonder how you can begin to hear God’s word of grace addressed to you personally. It is all very well hearing about God’s love and grace towards the elect, but how do I know about His love and grace towards me? For many the answer to this question has been sought by means of a gruelling search for assurance. Assurance of God’s grace towards us as individuals is looked for in feelings of His presence, internal dispositions, conversion experiences and the like.

Once the Word and sacraments have been treated in such a manner, faith is thrown back onto feelings, internal dispositions, conversion experiences and the like. Faith becomes a work, trying to cultivate a particular internal disposition, or gradually fades away as it waits for its object to appear. Rather than simply receiving and living in the gracious relationship that God opens up with us in the Church, the Word and the Sacraments, the conversion experience and faith itself are regarded as the gift of a relationship with God. Consequently, when I am seeking to ascertain whether God is gracious to me I end up looking at my own faith and conversion experience, rather than to the places where God has promised to be graciously present in His Son.

In response to all of this, a number of FV proponents have presented their teaching of the ‘objectivity of the covenant’. The design of this teaching is to make the object of faith clear once again so that faith may never become a work and can draw strength from Christ in the places where He has promised to be present. The ‘objectivity of the covenant’ teaches that Christ is objectively present in the Church, Word and Sacraments and that we are called to receive Him by faith alone. God is genuinely gracious to us in bringing us into relationship with Himself in Baptism, irrespective of our internal disposition. We are called to abide in this gracious relationship by faith.

Against some of the misconceptions of the positions being put forward by FV proponents on this issue, it is important to recognize that no one is saying that Baptism does away with the need for faith and works salvation mechanically. One of the biggest problems in this area is that many of the critics of the FV think of Baptism as a function of our faith and fail to recognize that the FV conceives of Baptism primarily as God’s gracious work towards us. For these critics, when FV proponents say that Baptism objectively accomplishes something, irrespective of our internal condition, they hear the FV proponents saying that if you do the particular work of Baptism you are automatically, mechanically saved and that there is no longer any need for personal faith — you have been saved by your ‘work’ of Baptism. This is not what is being said at all. What is being said is that God forms a new type of gracious relationship with us in Baptism, adopting us into His family and engrafting us into Christ. Faith is the way in which we properly receive God’s gift and abide in it.

A Relational Understanding of Justification
The two previous points can both be seen to be part of a commitment to maintain the relational character of justification. A number of FV proponents have argued that the relational character of justification has been obscured in many contemporary Reformed understandings of the doctrine. Many traditional approaches to justification have started with a definition of ‘righteousness’ as absolute conformity to a perfect standard. We are declared righteous — justified — as Christ pays the price for our sin and as His perfect law-keeping is ‘put to our account’.

FV proponents tend to understand justification in more relational categories. For a number of FV proponents, to be ‘righteous’ is not to be sinlessly perfect according to some absolute standard, but to be in right relationship. Whilst our sinfulness needs to be dealt with if we are going to be in right relationship, we need not be regarded as sinlessly perfect in order to be in right relationship. We can regard ourselves as ‘righteous’ as we abide in relationship with God by faith; God also regards us in this manner.

Our righteousness is not to be reduced to Christ’s righteousness ‘put to our account’. Whilst the work of Christ underlies any possibility of our being in right relationship with God, our right-standing being received as the gift of participating in Christ’s relationship with God, there is also a righteousness that is distinctively our own. This righteousness is never the ground of our relationship with God. The ground of our relationship with God is the person and work of Christ alone. However, our righteousness is one that consists in our faithful obedience in terms of the relationship established for us with God in Christ, a relationship that does not demand sinless perfection (there is atonement), but faith and repentance.

Without Merit

The above relates to a fourth issue that is raised by a number within the FV. Norman Shepherd and others have attacked the covenant of works doctrine, understood as a prelapsarian meritorious covenant. The whole concept of merit has been called into question by some within the FV.

If we work in terms of many common Reformed understandings of righteousness and justification, we will argue that there is a need for perfect sinless righteousness on the part of the individual if they are to merit right-standing with God. Originally Adam was called to be sinlessly perfect, in order to merit eternal life in fellowship with God. When he fell from this Christ needed to come in order to pay the price for our sins by His passive obedience and merit eternal life and the blessings of salvation for us all by His active obedience.

This scheme may appear tidy, but a number of FV proponents argue that it is simply a hangover from the categories of medieval Catholicism. Those who work in terms of such schemes may reject medieval Roman Catholic formulations, but, as Norman Shepherd and others argue, they are playing on the same field. [That said, it seems to me that there is some truth to the claim that the Tridentine theology of justification and merit worked in terms of a filial metaphor, which means that, although there are real problems with the Roman Catholic doctrine, many of the perceived problems arise from the conflict of different root metaphors and may be more apparent than real.] Rather than thinking in terms of works and merit, they argue, we need to be thinking in terms of more ‘covenantal’ categories, such as sonship and adoption, gift and inheritance. Whilst some FV proponents are willing to live with the language of merit, provided it is understood properly, others wish to get rid of it altogether as unhelpful.

In terms of a consistent filial metaphor, sons do not merit anything from their fathers. Even Christ, Rich Lusk and others have argued, earned nothing from His Father. Rather, He was obedient unto death and received the inheritance. He did not earn the inheritance, but matured in obedience and received it freely, as an inheritance. He died for our sins and was raised up on the basis of His obedience. Apart from perfect and faithful obedience unto death Christ would never have been raised, but Christ’s obedience did not earn the resurrection. Christ gives us, not His merit, but His maturity.

Rich Lusk and others within the FV have claimed that we are not justified by a transfer of Christ’s ‘obedience points’, as it were, to our account, but by being brought to share in the status that Christ enjoys by virtue of the verdict declared over Him at the resurrection. Being credited with the obedience of Christ may be implicit in the fact that we share in His resurrection verdict — God regards us those who have matured in obedience in Christ (I doubt that all FV proponents will hold this position). However, it is not the case that there is a transfer of Christ’s active obedience to our account before we share in His verdict. Logically the verdict precedes any imputation of active obedience.

In all of this we must be clear that no one is saying that Christ’s death and resurrection are somehow unnecessary for our right-standing with God. They are absolutely essential. Christ’s death and resurrection provide the ground of our relationship with God. What is being said is that the fundamental character of this relationship needs to be reconceived. This also does away with the Law-Gospel paradigm.

A Trinitarian Approach
A number of FV proponents and others with similar concerns outside the centre of the conversation make a lot of the importance of the Trinity in providing us with a way of understanding the fundamental character of our relationship with God. Rather than thinking in terms of a ‘contractual’ works/merit framework, a Trinitarian approach, they argue, would encourage us to think in terms of a ‘covenantal’ framework. A Trinitarian, ‘covenantal’ approach is fundamentally relational and gracious, as opposed to a ‘contractual’ approach, which works in terms of strict merit and conformity to abstract standards.

Changing the model for our understanding of God’s relationship with us will have deep implications in any number of important areas. Peter Leithart explores this subject in some detail in one of his essays in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons. One of the primary things that commends the Trinitarian model is its ‘personalism’. A number of the FV proponents have claimed that many forms of Reformed theology have lapsed into speaking of grace, faith, covenant, justification and salvation in impersonal ways. Grace and faith are spoken of as if they were objects, rather than ways of relating. The reification of grace and faith causes us all sorts of problems. When one begins to talk of grace and faith as if they were substances, one is in danger of beginning to think that they are substances. Once grace and faith have become depersonalized in your understanding you are likely to face spiritual struggles as a result as the object of faith becomes unclear.

A further aspect of a Trinitarian approach is the manner in which it undermines the common claim that the ‘real me’ is somehow independent of the various relationships that I find myself in. Such an account of personhood lies at the heart of the individualism that FV proponents so wish to free the Reformed Church from. The Father is the Father because of His relationship to the Son. The Trinitarian persons are constituted by the various Trinitarian relationships. In the same manner, our deepest identity is not one that lies outside of our relationships. If this point is accepted, it will have seismic implications for our doctrine of justification, as I shall later demonstrate.

Once the fact that relationships are constitutive of our deepest identity is appreciated, it will also transform our understanding of salvation by once more placing the Church at the centre of understanding of salvation. The Church is the place where the various relationships between men and God and men and men are healed. The healing of our ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ relationships come together in the God-man. There is no allowance for any sharp distinction between the two. If my identity is fundamentally relational then salvation must take the form of restored relationships. If salvation is to truly work, it must form a new humanity and not merely save detached individuals. God’s salvation takes the shape of the Church. The connection between ecclesiology and justification in the theology of some of the proponents of the FV will be explored shortly.

The Judaizers

A fifth issue brought to the debate is the question of the issues that occasioned the NT treatment of justification. Is the NT teaching on justification intended primarily as a response to people who were trying to earn their salvation? Some FV proponents, following theologians like N.T. Wright, argue that Paul’s teaching on justification in the NT, although it certainly condemns anything like Pelagianism, was written in response to quite a different position.

Paul’s teaching on justification, they claim, needs to be understood in a redemptive historical framework. Paul’s opponents were not trying to earn salvation by their good works. Rather, they were using the Jewish Torah as a barrier between Jew and Gentile Christians. Paul claimed that Gentile Christians should not be expected to come under the Law, because the inheritance was for those in Christ. By continuing to use the Law as something to separate Jews from Gentiles and by calling Gentiles to come under the Law, the Judaizers were failing to recognize that a radically new order had been brought in by Christ. People become the sons and daughters of Abraham in the promised Seed, Jesus Christ. They were also failing to understand the purpose of the Law.

If we approach Paul with the question ‘how can I become right with God?’ we will end up with a different picture from that which will be gained when we see Paul’s doctrine of justification as addressing the question ‘what is the identity of the heirs of Abraham?’ or something similar.

Justification and the Church

A sixth concern, which arises out of the above approach to the reading of Paul, is that justification by regarded as ecclesial in character. The doctrine of justification needs to be regarded as part of the bigger question of the identity of the family promised to Abraham. To be justified, in Paul’s theology, is to be declared to be a member of the family promised to Abraham. If justification has to do with the character of the family promised to Abraham, justification can never be privatized. To be declared to be an heir of Abraham is to be declared to be in relationship with all other heirs of Abraham. By separating oneself from the other heirs of Abraham one is compromising the gospel. If Jewish Christians act as if they are not in right relationship with Gentile Christians by separating from them, they are denying by their actions that one new family has been formed in Christ. Such a doctrine of justification has a form of ecumenical imperative built into it.

This ecclesial understanding of justification is coupled, for some FV proponents, with a sacramental understanding of justification. The Church is the body that shares in the justified status of its Head. One is not justified before one becomes a member of the Church. The two events happen together. In particular, they happen at the moment of Baptism. In Baptism we are brought out of an old set of relationships and into a new one. Some FV proponents also point to the Lord’s Supper as an anticipation of future justification, a justification that includes our works (presented in the preceding offertory).

Redemptive Historical Justification

A seventh concern that can be seen in some of the FV approaches is that of presenting justification as a truly redemptive historical doctrine. The justification spoken of in the NT is not so much a timeless doctrine about how individuals get right with God as it is the truth of the apocalyptic vindication of the people of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Justification takes place at the climax of history, when the fullness of time had come. Justification belongs to the historia salutis; the purpose of the ordo salutis is to plug us into the historia salutis as part of God’s ongoing work of gathering a people for His Son.

Old covenant saints did not enjoy justification in the same way as new covenant saints do. Old covenant saints existed under Law and the dominion of Sin and Death. They were under condemnation. In His death Christ died to the realm of Sin (Romans 6:8-10). In His resurrection He was vindicated by being freed from the clutches of Death. Death no longer has dominion over Him. Christ was freed from the condemnation that lay over the old creation and ushered in a new creation.

Our justification is rooted in a public event in history — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Present justification is participation in the God’s justification of Christ by raising Him from the dead and delivering Him from the power of Death. In Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and resurrection. Christ did not die and rise again merely in order to make it possible for a particular form of ordo salutis to work. This is to contract the big picture that Scripture gives us considerably. The biblical picture is that individuals are saved by being brought to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ is the great saving Event that God has accomplished. Individual salvation is always salvation into this Event.

Within many Reformed circles, the ordo salutis has become the centre of people’s religion. For many it is seen to be the gospel. In Scripture, many of the FV voices are saying, the gospel is rather the great events that God brought about in history through His Son, Jesus Christ. The ordo salutis is decidedly secondary, being thoroughly subordinate to the historia salutis at every point. The ordo salutis is simply the manner in which the individual is brought to participate in the great drama of covenant history. The ordo salutis is not about the manner in which Jesus Christ comes into our own personal narratives; it is about the manner in which our personal narratives are drawn in the great Narrative of covenant history that has come to its climax in Christ.

Whilst FV proponents are clear that individuals have always been right with God through faith alone, a number of them do not believe that the NT doctrine of justification is primarily designed to underline this timeless truth.

Future Justification by Works

An eighth concern that is brought to the conversation by some within the FV is that of future justification by works. Many contemporary Reformed Christians are wary of speaking about future justification by works as they believe that this compromises the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, FV proponents argue, the Bible is clear that there will be a future judgment according to works.

Some Reformed people want to maintain that future judgment according to works is not consistent with justification by faith alone and seek to treat the passages that speak of it as hypothetical or argue that we will be justified on the last day by Christ’s righteous works put to our account. This approach is generally resisted within the FV. We will be justified as doers of the Law or condemned as breakers of it.

FV proponents will generally argue that, biblically, doing of the Law does not require sinless perfection. All that it demands is faith and repentance. Once this has been appreciated, future judgment according to works makes a lot more sense. Our works can never be the ground of our relationship with God but they are necessary for final justification, as an essential dimension of Christian faithfulness. There is no such thing as faith that is not obedient; final justification takes our works into view as part of God’s judgment of our faithfulness.

A faith that does not bear fruit is not true faith. A number of FV proponents would hold that God will cut off any in Christ who do not produce good works. He will not cut them off because they have failed to match up to some arbitrary standard of righteousness (45% obedience, say), but because they do not have a living faith. They will be some baptized Christians on the last day who will be condemned as God judges them according to their works and finds them wanting. The Bible calls us to live lives worthy of our calling and the kingdom. Those who live lives that are worthy will be rewarded on the last day. Christians who are unbelieving and disobedient may well find themselves stripped of the blessings that they once enjoyed and eternally judged.

We are given white robes in Baptism. These robes speak of the righteous status that we enjoy in Christ. They are kept clean as we wash them in the blood of Christ (Revelation 7:14). However, the robes that we are given are also said to be our own righteous acts (Revelation 19:8). Our faithfulness is never an autonomous faithfulness. It always grows out of Christ’s faithfulness. Future judgment according to works need not be regarded as a threat to those who truly believe in Christ. It is only a threatening truth for those who are faithless and disobedient and want to presume upon God’s grace.

The teaching of future judgment according to works and the existence of rewards can be of great comfort to the faithful believer. It teaches us that as we sow to the Spirit, we will be rewarded many times over. It teaches us that God accepts and takes delight in our stumbling faith and that our labour need never be in vain. God sees and remembers what we do for Him. As Rich Lusk has observed, we do not need to feel self-pity over our sacrifices for God, nor should we regard ourselves as some moral Hercules. If we appreciate the fact that we will be rewarded far beyond anything that we might have merited we will be freed from the sort of self-righteousness that is closely allied to self-pity.

The manner in which future justification relates to present justification is variously understood. For some the resurrection of Christ is seen to bring the future judgment into the present. Others, like James Jordan, prefer to think that a two-stage justification was always envisaged. I don’t think that anyone would deny that present justification genuinely anticipates future justification and that the two need to be kept closely together.

Justification as Liberation

A ninth line of argumentation in FV circles on the subject of justification has already been hinted at. This is the position that justification needs to be understood more in terms of liberation. Peter Leithart has written on this subject on a few occasions. Leithart argues that the traditional Reformed approaches to justification have defined the term too narrowly and that, as we pay more careful attention to the use of the language of justification in Scripture, we will observe that frequently God justifies someone by delivering them. Justification is certainly forensic in character, but we need to discover how God’s judgments are seen to work in Scripture. In Scripture, God’s judgment on someone’s behalf is not merely a bare verbal sentence, but includes the actual deliverance by which that verdict is put into effect.

The resurrection of Christ is the great example of such a justifying verdict. God justifies His Son by delivering Him from the clutches of Death. Such a justification will not leave us unchanged. As we are justified in Baptism we are delivered from the realm of Sin, through the death and resurrection of Christ. Such a justification takes us out of an old ‘death situation’ in which we were under condemnation and the dominion of Sin and Death (it is important to recognize that this was not merely the state of unbelievers; believing OT Jews, for example, were also within this ‘death situation’) and brings us into a new ‘life situation’ in which we are adopted into the family promised to Abraham and are co-heirs with Christ.

If this understanding of justification is followed, some of the distinctions between justification and sanctification in traditional Reformed theology become less sharply defined. God vindicates us by delivering us from death and setting us apart for temple duty. One could argue that, in some sense, God justifies us by sanctifying us. Baptismal justification is by definitive sanctification.

Justification as a ‘Legal Fiction’?

The final argument that one sometimes hears from within the FV is a resistance to any position that might present justification as a ‘legal fiction’. This resistance takes place on a number of grounds.

First of all, it is argued that, if we are united to Christ, our justification is not a legal fiction at all as it is founded upon the fact of union. Imputation is a judgment of fact. As Richard Gaffin points out in the passage that I quoted near the beginning of this post: ‘If anything, this outlook which makes justification exponential of existential union with the resurrected Christ serves to keep clear what preoccupation with the idea of imputation can easily obscure, namely, that the justification of the ungodly is not arbitrary but according to truth: it is synthetic with respect to the believer only because it is analytic with respect to Christ (as resurrected).’

Secondly, some FV writers, particularly Leithart, have criticized traditional arguments that justification does not change our inner state. Leithart argues that to claim that justification only changes man’s outer status without changing his inner state is to claim that there is some part of man that is more fundamental than God’s judgment about him. Our essence is what God has declared us to be. When God declares me to be righteous I genuinely become a new righteous person in fact. God’s judgment is more determinative than present appearances. God’s identification concerning me must be more fundamental than my self-identification. I may have a lived existence that is sinful in many respects and does not seem to be in conformity with what God has declared me to be in essence, but I must always recognize that my identity is rooted first and foremost in what God has said about me. God’s judgment sets the terms; to regard it as a legal fiction is to say that human judgment sets the terms.

Thirdly, Leithart has hinted on a number of occasions at a third reason why justification is not a legal fiction. Justification is not a legal fiction because one day we will be perfectly righteous. In the present we are accounted righteous as those who will one day be perfectly righteous. God’s accounting us righteous is based on the work that He has determined to complete in us. In Christ our essence is eschatological and it is ‘righteous’. God accounts us righteous in the present, despite the sinfulness of our existence, as He knows that in the future our existence will conform to our essence.

Use of Traditional Categories
One of the issues within the FV is the use of traditional categories. A number of FV proponents argue that many common Reformed positions have rejected the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, but they failed to reject the terms of debate set by the medieval theologians. Whilst a number of the FV speakers feel at home with or are at least happy to consistently accommodate themselves to more or less traditional categories, other FV proponents like Peter Leithart and James Jordan seem to argue for a more radical approach. They argue that the categories in terms of which most of the traditional justification debates have been carried out need to be called into question.

Infusion/imputation, transformative/declarative, forensic/participatory, internal/external, status/being, ecclesiology/soteriology, etc., are all very loaded categories and some claim that many of these categories for debate need to be dispensed with or at least carefully re-examined. We also need to question the works/merit scheme. Leithart in particular suggests that we need to start thinking in ways that problematize the traditional structure of the debate. Leithart has done work to try to ascertain the root concerns of the Protestant doctrine of justification and question the degree to which the doctrine is bound to a particular set of categories. Can we defend all the key concerns of the Protestant doctrine of justification within a different set of categories? Are we confessionally bound to a particular framework of debate? Can we say the same sort of things that the Westminster Confession of Faith sought to say within its own ‘language game’ within another?

Of course, when you start to do this it can become very hard for people who are used to thinking in traditional categories to understand what you are saying. It is like trying to explain Einstein within the categories of medieval science. This is one of the problems that face the more radical thinkers such as Peter Leithart (the same can be said about N.T. Wright).


I have tried above to sketch out some of the issues that are central to the FV treatment of justification at the moment. I have not been comprehensive, but I trust that I have given some sense of the various theological positions being put forward within the FV.

How should we regard the FV? Is the FV a homogenous movement with a clearly defined agenda, fighting a war on a number of fronts? I don’t think that it is. I believe that the FV is more of a conversation between a group of pastors and theologians with largely overlapping areas of concern. However, despite the overlapping areas of concern I do believe that there are real differences of emphasis, angle of approach and agenda within the movement, along with areas of disagreement.

Unfortunately, it is hard to understand the FV writers and speakers apart from a very charitable reading. Those who start off determined to disagree with them will not have the patience necessary to understand the careful qualifications of their various positions. It seems to me that this is the deepest problem facing the debate. The critics of the FV need to keep their minds open for long enough to digest the significant amount of information necessary to assess the FV on its own terms, before being able to make up their minds about it in an informed manner. Unfortunately, given the current climate of debate, people are pressed to make up their minds as soon as possible and so it does not surprise me that the FV is frequently seriously misrepresented (I could say the same about Wright).

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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5 Responses to Approaches to Justification within the Federal Vision

  1. Tim G says:

    Thanks, Alastair. There are a couple places that I would think need rewording, but overall this is very good work.

    Most serious typo:

    FV proponents tend to understand justification in more relational categories. For a number of FV proponents, to be ‘righteous’ is not to be sinfully perfect according to some absolute standard.

    I believe you meant sinlessly, not sinfully.

  2. Al says:

    Thanks Tim. I have corrected the typo.

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  5. hygelac says:

    The FV managed to produce considerable agitation in Reformed circles. But that was nearly 20 years ago. Since then the controversy that swirled around the mvt has fizzled out while the vision itself continues on in the work of Leithart and Jordan at the Theopolis Institute.

    I was quite impressed with much that the FV authors had to say, particularly their emphasis on ecclesiology and the sacraments as necessary to a fully-orbed covenantal and biblical understanding of soteriology. And yet, I must wonder if the errors they sought to redress were not endemic to the Reformation so much as the development of Reformed theology along a trajectory that led it away from an earlier period when it was less rigid, healthier, more catholic and sacramental?

    Earlier Reformed thinkers did not consider it problematic to tie spiritual regeneration and the gift of imputed righteousness to baptism, precisely because baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the rites that brought one into a salvific union with Christ through faith. Moreover they didn’t hesitate to speak of an imparted righteousness in our justification amounting to a true renovation of the soul. So we find Hooker saying that salvation consists of three kinds of righteousness: an interior sanctifying righteousness which is imperfect, an exterior justifying righteousness which is perfect and glorifying righteousness in the life to come which will be both interior and perfect. The 17th century laudian divine, John Bramhall, put it like this to a certain RC controversialist:

    “Concerning justification, we believe that all good Christians have true inherent justice, though not perfect, according to a perfection of degrees, as gold is true gold, though it be mixed with dross. We believe that this inherent justice and sanctity doth make them truly just and holy. But if the word ‘justification’ be taken in sensu forensi , for the acquittal of a man from a former guilt, to make an offender just in the eyes of the law, as it is opposed to ‘condemnation,’-“It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?”-then it is not our inherent righteousness that justifieth us in this sense, but the free grace of God for the Merits of Jesus Christ.”

    “Next for Merits, we never doubted of the necessity of good works, without which faith is but a fiction. We are not so stupid to imagine that Christ did wash us from our sins, that we might wallow more securely in sin, but that ‘we might serve him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life.’ We never doubted the reward of good works;-‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, ‘&c.’for I was hungry, and ye fed me:’ nor whether reward be due to them in justice;-“Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the just Judge shall give me in that day;” faithful promise makes due debt. This was all that the Ancient Church did ever understand by the name of Merits. Let Petavius bear witness;-“Antiqui Patres omnes, et procaeteris Augustinus, cumque iis consentiens Romana et Catholica pietas, agnoscit merita eo sensu, nimirum ut neque Dei gratiam ulla antecedant merita, et haec ipsa tum ex gratia tum ex gratuita Dei pollicitatione tota pendeant;”-“All the ancient Fathers, especially St. Austin, and the Roman and Catholic Faith consenting with them, do acknowledge Merits in this sense, that no Merits go before the grace of God, and that these very Merits do depend wholly on grace and on the free promise of God.” Hold you to this, and we shall have no more difference about Merits. Do you exact more of us, than all the Fathers, or the Roman and Catholic piety, doth acknowledge?”

    “It is an easy thing for a wrangling sophister to dispute of Merits in the schools, or for a vain orator to declaim of Merits out of the pulpit; but when we come to lie upon our death-beds, and present ourselves at the last hour before the tribunal of Christ, it is high time both for you and us to renounce our own merits, and to cast ourselves naked into the arms of our Saviour. That any works of ours (who are the best of us but “unprofitable servants;” which properly are not ours but God’s own gifts; and if they were ours, are a just debt due unto Him, setting aside God’s free promise and gracious acceptation) should condignly by their own intrinsical value deserve the joys of Heaven, to which they have no more proportion than they have to satisfy for the eternal torments of Hell;-this is that which we have renounced, and which we ought never to admit.”

    This statement, I think, is representative of the Reformed theology of the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. As such, it may include that inward/outward opposition which the FV authors found unhelpful. I agree with you that salvation is a plugging into the historia salutis through the gifts of faith and sacramental baptism per Rom 6; it is also a rescue from sin, not merely in terms of condemnation, but as a release from that thralldom which prevented us from serving the Lord as temple servants in holiness and righteousness (e.g. Rom. 11; Eph. 2: 8-10; Col. 2: 9-15).

    Bramhall at the very least hints at this, even if his parlance is freighted with the language of inward/outward and other notions which come with the theology of the period. I’d be interested to know what you think of it. Again, it’s a good example of the theology in the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and the Books of Homilies; but that does not mean the statement, or the theological tradition it purports to reflect, is beyond improvement.

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