Posts Tagged ‘Augustine’

Justification – right with God

April 9, 2009

One of the tracks I went to at New Word Alive was called “Right With God” – a tour through the doctrine of justification by Mike Reeves, who works for UCCF. We started off in the second century AD and went through to modern-day debates over the doctrine raised by the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision. I’m hoping the talks will be downloadable from the New Word Alive site or Theology Network soon – they are extremelyworthwhile. (This is also worth listening to – a chat with John Piper on the subject of Justification and the NPP) In the meantime, I thought I would blog some of the more interesting things I learnt!

Often we assume some kind of simplistic view of church history – something like  ‘the early church fathers corrupted the message of the apostles until it was rediscovered in the Reformation’ (not a real quote!) but things aren’t so simple. Even by the second century there was a diversity in views of justification in the church – ranging from the sublime to the heretical. Reeves pointed out particularly the works-righteousness in Mandate 6 of the Shepherd of Hermas, (the two angels thing seems to have made it directly into the Qur’an – 50:17) which is even more pronounced in Mandate 7 – “Every creature feareth the Lord, but not every one keepeth His commandments. Those then that fear Him and keep His commandments, they have life unto God; but they that keep not His commandments have no life in them” which couldn’t be further from the joyful theology of the New Testament.

But often too, Protestants can think of Augustine as being a Protestant because of his emphasis on original sin and his battle against Pelagianism. Yet he also provides the basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification based upon the “infused righteousness of God” by putting primacy on Romans 5:5 in defining justification (understanding the “love of God” poured into our hearts as promoting righteousness within us, thus making us just). This is the root of the Reformation debate – is justification to be understood as the process of becoming more and more just, or is it a (forensic) pronouncement?

For Luther, justification was a declaritive act of God, and obtained not by penitence but by faith in the promises of God. Reeves did a great job of showing how Luther’s thought developed – he didn’t wake up one morning and decide to found a church, and the 95 Theses where it all began are not so much Protestant as a strand of Catholicism opposed to the abuse of indulgences. Luther considered what was actually going on during confession with a priest – the priest would offer the promise of God’s forgiveness, and the hope of forgiveness is not found introspectively through feelings of repentance, but in God’s promises. Contrary to what some have claimed, Luther was not the victim of an introspective conscience, at least, not when he was a Protestant – but instead placed all of his confidence of acceptance by God external to himself – in God’s promises of righteousness through faith in Christ. If any view is to be accused of promoting introspection, it should be Medieval Catholicism.

This view of Justification is a tremendously liberating truth – as shown in Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, which was very much recommended by Reeves. It also affects the rest of our theology – it provides a way of seeing God as loving rather than exclusively as a cosmic judge; it changes our understanding of what sin is and exposes self-righteousness and refusal to rely on God as the terrible acts of rebellion they are; it even changes our understanding of what ‘faith’ is. Faith is not a surrogate work or something we need to work hard at to “do”. If it were an inner resource then it would be sin, according to Luther, so “have I got enough faith?” is precisely the wrong question for the Christian to ask herself. Faith is a passive thing on this understanding – it is receiving the promises of God; taking God seriously in what he says. For Protestants, it is God’s Word which saves, not the strength of our faith. I wonder whether we do a good job of communicating this when we talk about “faith alone”? The faith-as-a-surrogate-work misunderstanding is one I’ve come across from a lot of people, including people who otherwise know their Bibles and Church History as well as anyone.