Clark and Wilson

You would not believe how frustrating it is to follow the debate between Clark and Wilson. Clark has posted here and here; Wilson responds here, here and here. I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks that Clark is so determined to disagree with Wilson that he will create differences where they do not exist. Of course, the gospel is at stake in these slightest of differences. It always is, isn’t it!

Michael Spencer comments:

You know, when you have someone decrying another person’s faith entirely on the basis of an argument that simply cannot be comprehended by a fairly educated Christian teacher and preacher (me), then what in the heck is going on? Presbyterians can go at it over things that the rest of the Christian world can’t even point at and nod.

I’ve listened to a lot of Federal Vision criticism and defense, and it makes me want to hear the welcome sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.

Along with recent discussions between FV proponents and critics about the nature of union with Christ, this sort of discussion reveals a particularly ugly side of Reformed theology — the tendency to get bogged down in the pettiest of disagreements whilst claiming that one is defending the heart of the Christian faith. When the gospel has been so utterly dissolved into theological fine print one wonders if there is anything to rejoice in anymore. The gospel is not about a precise and finely-attuned relationship and distinction between justification and sanctification. It never was and, praise God, it never will be.

This is why I love reading people like N.T. Wright. Wright’s gospel is so simple and straightforward that one cannot but rejoice. It really isn’t very complicated. Of course, when a mind that has been tying itself in knots over fine distinctions without differences encounters Wright it will go away deeply confused. The confusion, however, is in the mind of the reader, not in Wright himself.

When it comes to the distinction between justification and sanctification it seems to me that much of the heat of this debate arises from the fact that the wrong questions are being asked (both by many FV writers and by their critics). It seems that the question that guides the debate is still the question of how an individual can get right with a holy God. However, the more that I look at the Scriptures, the more that I come to the conclusion that this can only lead us to misunderstand the biblical teaching on justification. Justification in the Scripture is about how God sets men to rights (not, however, about a process of making people righteous), rather than about how men can get right with God. Once this has been appreciated the distinction between justification and sanctification is nowhere near as sharp as it would be otherwise (for instance, we can say that God is righteous to justify a person, among other reasons, because He has committed Himself to sanctifying the person and that, if He were not committed to sanctifying them then He would not be righteous to justify them) and faith and works can be far more closely related. We can even go so far as to claim that part of the reason that God is righteous in justifying us has to do with the holiness of faith.

If I were working in terms of the theological questions that shape Clark’s understanding of justification, my underlying theological concerns would probably lead me to much the same conclusions. However, my conviction is that the questions that shape his position are simply the wrong ones and that a better set of questions could lead us far beyond the impasses of many of the Reformation debates and may even allow for a more sympathetic reading of Roman Catholic theology on this matter. Whilst the idea of a sympathetic reading of Roman Catholic theology appalls many, I see no reason why it should, provided that we have arrived at such a reading through closer attention to the Scriptures, rather through the sacrifice of biblical convictions on the altar of compromise.

Update: Wilson blogs another response here.

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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6 Responses to Clark and Wilson

  1. Pingback: The Boars Head Tavern » Blog Archive » Thank God I’m Not The Only One

  2. nick says:

    Al,
    If you were trying to explain to someone how justification / sanctification and all that jazz fit together, how would you explain it? What questions should be emphasized? What passages of scripture should be emphasized or explored more fully? Sorry for the barrage of questions, but as an amateur at thinking theologically, the Clark – Wilson debate seems to lose me in the dust. I’d appreciate any clarity I can get (particularly if it coincides with Wright’s approach, which I’ve learned so much from).

    Also, and this goes a different direction, who would be another theological voice out there that would be useful to read in dialogue with NTW?

    Thanks…Nick

  3. Al says:

    Nick,
    A few points on justification/sanctification:

    1. I would place more of an accent on justification as eschatological in character. A believer is not necessarily justified. The OT believers, for instance, were, in most senses that matter, unjustified believers awaiting a justification that was yet future.

    Consequently, the NT teaching concerning justification is bound up with the fact that, in the fulness of time, God has acted in history in the person of His Son. To be justified in the present is to be implicated in this.

    2. Justification takes the form of an event. More particularly, it takes the form of resurrection. Justification is not a mere tick in a heavenly register, or something like that. It is an event in history. Our justification occurs at the point of Baptism, by which we are incorporated in the crucified and resurrected Christ.

    3. Justification changes our state. It removes us from a state of condemnation into a state of justification. The unjustified believer is in a state of apparent condemnation (like Christ in His death) and awaits vindication. Christ’s justification was His resurrection and in Baptism we also are publicly vindicated.

    4. Justification is something that God brings about as the heavenly judge. Justification is not merely something that follows automatically from the gift of faith to someone.

    5. When God declares someone to be righteous by vindicating them we should take this judgment as our starting point, rather than their sin which is still apparent. How can God declare such a person to be righteous? I believe that part of the reason has to do with the fact that the person’s existence will one day correspond to God’s present judgment concerning them. God declares us righteous in advance, because He is completely committed to conforming us to the image of His Son. In addition, God can declare us righteous because our sins have been covered by Christ’s sacrifice.

    In this approach it should be clear that sanctification is viewed, not as something that is primarily worked out from man’s side, but as a commitment on God’s part.

    6. The ‘sanctifying’ work of the Spirit is part of the basis of God’s declaration of justification. God declares us righteous because the faith that He has given us renders the true obedience that the Law requires, is the first sign of the work of the covenant-renewing Holy Spirit and will be accompanied with a new way of life. These are things that mark out the righteous and they belong in the picture in God’s declaration of justification. They are never things done from our side to earn salvation, however.

    7. ‘Sanctification’ must be approached by faith. God declares us to be righteous, to be new people in Christ. Though things might appear radically different, we must grasp this word by faith and hold on to it tightly. God has promised to conform us to the image of His Son and we must take hold of this promise by faith.

    8. In Scripture the term sanctification probably has far more of a ‘priestly’ meaning than it does in theological discussion. To be ‘sanctified’ is to be set apart for temple service.

    I could say a lot more. However, I might be addressing these issues more clearly in the next few days, so I don’t want to steal my own thunder. In the meantime you might find this post and this post helpful. I have also addressed FV doctrines of justification here.

    As regards your other question, Wright recommends Francis Watson as one of his critics that he thinks is worth reading.

  4. J.Jones says:

    Excellent post, Al.

  5. nick says:

    Al,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I think I need to spend some time slowing down and working through the relevant issues carefully.

    And in general, as one more twenty-something trying to make sense of theology without becoming a pretentious loser or getting lost in vague and abstract philosophy, I really appreciate what you’re doing. Thanks.

  6. Christopher Witmer says:

    Now the folks at Covenant Radio, who offered R. Scott Clark an opportunity to discuss his own book, were turned down by Clark because, in his words, they are ‘Latitudinarians’.

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