Throughout the history of Protestantism, myriads of books have been written to highlight and explain the intricacies of the biblical doctrine of justification. With the rise of the New Perspective(s) on Paul the doctrine of justification has received a resurgence of interest throughout the past decade. As a result, some very useful volumes have been published. Some of the more helpful include the D.A. Cardon ed. Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 2: Paradoxes of Paul, Guy Prentiss Waters’ Justification and the New Perspective(s) on Paul, K. Scott Oliphint ed. Justified in Christ, Gary L.W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters ed. By Faith Alone, John Piper’s The Future of Justification, and John Fesko’s Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine. Among 20th Century works, John Murray’s chapter on justification in Redemption Accomplished and Applied has become a much loved contribution to the subject. There are also a plethora of valuable historical works such as John Owen’s Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Francis’ Turretin’s chapter on Justification and James Buchannan’s The Doctrine of Justification. The beauty of the above mentioned works is that they consistently outline and defend the Biblical (and confessionally Reformed) doctrine of justification by faith alone. In addition to these volumes, a multitude of articles and blog posts have been written to deal with the nuances of the discussion. Ligonier Ministries, for instance, dedicated an entire issue to the subject. These Tabletalk articles serve as helpful introductions of some of the more specific nuances of this seemingly new redefinition of Paul’s doctrine of justification.
The imputation of righteousness has specifically come under attack in recent years. This aspect of the Protestant formulation of justification has been questioned–and in certain cases even brazenly denied–by some who actually classify themselves as “Protestants.” For instance, many proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul–and some of the proponents of Federal Vision theology–have rejected the idea that Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly for His people in order to merit righteousness for those He came to save. Usually the arguments against imputed righteousness are built upon straw-man logical fallacies, such as the following: “How can righteousness be passed from one source to another? It’s not a gas or made of atoms.” The problem with this objection is that it completely distorts the historic Reformed teaching on imputation. There is not one Reformed theologian that I have ever come across who treats righteousness like a material substance passed from one person to another. The most basic explanation of imputation is that it is “the legal conferring or accounting of a righteous status to an individual on the basis of that persons union with the perfectly righteous one Jesus Christ.” Jesus was constituted a sinner for His people, and those who believe in Him are constituted righteous before God. The Pauline doctrine of justification does not refer to any actually inner transformation or personal change; rather, it is the legal status that has been effected by the obedience of Jesus. The personal inner transformation that sinners receive through union with Christ is imparted righteousness–and that is what the Scriptures teach that believers who have received the imputed righteousness of Christ for justification will also receive the imparted righteousness of Christ for progressive sanctification. This is the distinction that must always be safeguarded.
When we come to discuss the formulation and reception of the Protestant doctrine of justification we would be remiss if we did not give consideration to the writings of the Westminster Assembly. In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the members of the Assembly define justification in the following way: “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” (WSC Q. 33) This statement serves a summary of what Protestants have believed historically concerning the doctrine of justification. In short, the Reformed have always believed, taught and defended that guilty sinners receive the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ by grace alone through faith alone; that it is a once for all finished act; that it is set in the context of our legal standing before God; that a justified sinner cannot loose that justification; that God accepts us as perfectly righteous, only because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us; that the justified sinner is constituted righteous because Christ was constituted a sinner in his place (2 Cor. 5:21); and that in justification the justified person is not transformed inwardly. The Reformed have always insisted, with Martin Luther and John Calvin, that the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.”
So what is meant when we hear the term “the imputed righteousness of Christ?” Can we prove from the Scriptures that it is a once-for-all completed act? How do we know that the Pauline use of the term speaks of our legal standing before God? Furthermore, what do we do with the seeming contradiction between James and Paul with respect to the use of the word justified? These, and other pertinent questions, have been posed and answered in a plethora of ways over the centuries. It will do us good to recap a few of the most significant passages of Scripture on the subject.
Works of the Law
While the Gospel is not limited to the forensic dimension of justification, it is a fact that if you give up justification by faith alone you have given up the Gospel. This is certainly the Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians–the two books that have not-surprisingly come under attack from “so-called” Protestant scholars over the last 30 years. Within the New Perspective camp, as well as among many of the proponents of the Federal Vision, one of the principle arguments against the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone comes from a redefinition of Paul’s use of the phrase works of the Law. Interestingly, this is not a “new perspective” at all. It is the old Roman Catholic Perspective. Protestants have historically understood the phrase works of the Law to refer–not simply to Jewish exclusivity–but to anything a man may do to try to gain a right standing before God. To be fair, there was, indeed, something distinctively Jewish about the context in which Paul entered into polemics on the subject of justification. To deny that would be to disregard the historical setting; but to redefine works of the Law to mean Jewish nationalism–in contradistinction to legalism–is to disregard the whole of the biblical data. Consider the very persuasive arguments set out by Tom Schreiner in “‘Works of the Law’ in Paul.”
Demand for Perfect Obedience
At the heart of the historical Protestant teaching on justification–as over against the Roman Catholic dogma–is the biblical teaching that God demands perfect and perpetual obedience. A helpful scholarly defense of this subjec can be found in Thomas Schreiner’s outastanding articles “Paul and Perfect Obedience to the Law: An Evaluation of the View of E.P. Sanders” and “Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Possible? A Reexamination of Galatians 3:10.” The need for imputed righteousness rests squarely on God’s continued demand for perfect obedience. God is absolutely holy. In order for a Holy God to maintain His holiness He can never become lax in his demand for holiness. A general holiness will never do. Man is indebted to God as the creature to the Creator. It is unthinkable that the infinitely holy God would require less than absolute perfection. To do so would be for Him to deny Himself. The fact that fallen man cannot provide what God requires is no argument against His requiring of it. In fact, this is the glory of the Gospel. In the life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign of Christ God provides what He requires. He fulfills the Law’s demand for perfect obedience by coming in the Person of Christ to fulfill the legal demands of the Covenant. Jesus kept the Law perfectly and so merited a human righteousness as the representative of His people. Jesus was sinless. Jesus was a representative of His people. Jesus’ sinlessness was a representative sinlessness. This is what is meant when we speak of imputed righteousness. The sinless One became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. My sin was imputed to Christ. His righteousness was imputed to me. For a treatment of the sinlessness of Jesus see my short Tabletalk article.
The locus classicus for the Reformed teaching on God’s demand for perfect and perpetual obedience is Galatians 3:10. There the apostle Paul cites Deuteronomy 27:26 in an attempt to prove that justification is by faith, not by works. If justification were by our law-keeping (works) then a man would have to keep the entirety of the Law. This is the reason why Paul appeals to Deut. 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things written in the Law of God to do them.” Schreiner, in his article “Is Perfect Obedience to the Law Possible,” notes the following important observation about Galatians 3:10:
It is unlikely, therefore, that in Gal 3:10 Paul cited Deut 27:26 because the latter condemned the sin of legalism. The simplest way of reading the quotation, and it is one that accords with the OT context, is that Paul is saying that there is a curse on anyone who does not observe the law entirely. Such an interpretation is strengthened when one observes that Paul, in basic agreement with the LXX, uses a Scripture text that pronounces a curse on anyone who does not abide by all things (pasin)written in the book of the law, to do them. It is very important to note that the MT does not have any word in Deut 27:26 that corresponds to the word pasin in Gal 3:10. It is fair to conclude, therefore, that Paul’s use of the word pasin clearly implies that the curse was pending if one did not observe any part of the law.
The πασιν τοις of Galatians 3:10 makes it undeniable that God demanded perfect and unbroken obedience to the Law. The legal demand for perfect obedience did not pass away with the fall of Adam. God is holy, and a holy God must continue to demand perfect obedience to His own holy standard. If God did not demand perfect obedience to His Law then He would deny His own holy nature. As Cornelius Van Til noted, “What God says is right because He says it, and He says it because it rests on His own holy nature.” Even in eternity, God will demand perfect moral obedience to His holy law.
The other significant passage to which biblical scholars have pointed in defense of the demand for perfect obedience to the Law of God is Romans 10:5-6. Citing Leviticus 18:5 , the apostle Paul contrasts two different kinds of righteousness: (1) The righteousness of the Law, and (2) the righteousness of faith.” Guy Prentiss Waters, in his outstanding JETS article on this passage, charters the exegetical waters (no pun intended) of this text. He writes:
When Paul encompasses Moses’ phrase [from Lev. 18:5] “all of my decrees and all of my commands” (πάντα τὰ προστάγματά μου καὶ πάντα τὰκρίματά μου) in a single word (αυτα), he is stressing a vital point. The righteousness which is of the law (την δικαιοσυνην την εκ του νομου) is a righteousness which is based upon and demands perfect and entire obedience to all the commands of God’s law. It is the meeting of this standard that is requisite for entrance into “life.” We have, then, an important affirmation parallel to Paul’s claim at Gal 3:10 that failure to perform flawless obedience to the law results in coming under the law’s curse (“for as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed is every one who does not abide in everything which has been written in the book of the law, to do them.”
Paul sums up the biblical teaching on the demand for perfect obedience in the “πασιν” of Galatians 3:10 and the “αυτα” of Romans 10:5. This alone ought to suffice as sufficient proof of the exegetical accuracy of this doctrinal assertion.
So the question is, “How do we gain a righteous standing before an infinitely holy God who requires perfect and continual obedience for that right standing?” To answer this question we must turn our attention to the biblical teaching on the perfect, representative obedience of Jesus. Do the Scriptures really teach that Jesus kept the Law as a representative figure for His people so that they would get all the righteousness they need for a right standing with God by faith in Him? Can we point to a chapter and verse to prove it? That all depends on what we mean by “point to a chapter and verse.” There are several important texts and doctrines that need to be considered in tandem in order for us to see that God has revealed this precious doctrine in the Scriptures.
Provision of Perfect Righteousness
Beginning in the 17th Century, it became common to find Reformed theologians distinguishing between two aspects of Christ’s perfect obedience–what they termed His active and passive obedience. Certainly there can be a danger in seperating the righteousness of Christ into two categories because the Scriptures teach that He was “obedient unto the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Despite this potential danger, John Murray aptly noted the significance of using the categorical terms active and passive when referring to Christ’s obedience. He wrote:
(a) The term “passive obedience” does not mean that in anything Christ did was he passive, the involuntary victim of obedience imposed upon him. It is obvious that any such conception would contradict the very notion of obedience. And it must be jealously maintained that even in his sufferings and death our Lord was not the passive recipient of that to which he was subjected. In his sufferings he was supremely active, and death itself did not befall him as it befalls other men. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself” are his own words. He was obedient unto death, Paul tells us. And this does not mean that his obedience extended to the threshold of death but rather that he was obedient to the extent of yielding up his spirit in death and of laying down his life. In the exercise of self-conscious sovereign volition, knowing that all things had been accomplished and that the very moment of time for the accomplishment of this event had arrived, he effected the separation of body and spirit and committed the latter to the Father. He dismissed his spirit and laid down his life. The word “passive,” then, should not be interpreted to mean pure passivity in anything that came within the scope of his obedience. The sufferings he endured, sufferings which reached their climax in his death upon the accursed tree, were an integral part of his obedience and were endured in pursuance of the task given him to accomplish.
(b) Neither are we to suppose that we can allocate certain phases or acts of our Lord’s life on earth to the active obedience and certain other phases and acts to the passive obedience. The distinction between the active and passive obedience is not a distinction of periods. It is our Lord’s whole work of obedience in every phase and period that is described as active and passive, and we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the active obedience applies to the obedience of his life and the passive to the obedience of his final sufferings and death.2
Murray went on to defend the internal reason behind this distinction:
The real use and purpose of the formula is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ as the vicar of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law of God in all its positive requirements. In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter. Christ’s obedience was vicarious in the bearing of the full judgment of God upon sin, and it was vicarious in the full discharge of the demands of righteousness. His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification.3
Though there was some debate in the Assembly on this issue, the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith of “the whole obedience” almost certain alludes to the law-keeping and obedient death of Jesus. Westminster Larger Catechism 97 clearly points out these two distinct parts of the work of Christ when it speaks of believers being “bound to Christ for His fulfilling [the law], and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good.” In other words, the righteousness of Christ includes all of His obedience culminating in His laying down His life for the sheep.
In addition to His keeping of the demands of the moral law, our Lord taught that He had to obey specific Mediatorial commands from His Father. In John 10:17-18 He said, ” “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” God the Father commanded the Son–the eternal aspect of the Covenant of Grace–to lay down His life willingly. This was a Mediatorial command from the God the Father. In addition to the moral and ceremonial commands that Jesus kept perfectly, He also kept all the Mediatorial commands that were uniquely His to keep. Jonathan Edwards summed up so well the obedience that Christ rendered to His Father on our behalf when he wrote:
1. He obeyed those commands that he was subject to merely as man, and they were the commands of the moral law, which was the same with that that was given at Mount Sinai, written in two tables of stone, which are of obligation to mankind of all nations and all ages of the world.
2. He obeyed all those laws that he was subject to as he was a Jew. Thus he was subject to ceremonial law and was conformed to it. He was conformed to it in his being circumcised the eighth day. And he strictly obeyed it in going up to Jerusalem to the temple three times in the year, at least after he was come to the age of twelve years, which seems to have been the age when the males began to go up to the temple. And so Christ constantly attended the service of the temple and of the synagogues.
To the head of his obedience to the laws that he was subject to as a Jew may be reduced his submission to John’s baptism; for it was a special command of God to the Jews to go forth to John the Baptist and be baptized of him. And therefore Christ, being a Jew, was subject to this command, and therefore when he came to be baptized of John, and John objected that he had more need to come to him be baptized of him, he gives this reason for it: that it was needful that he should do it that he might fulfill all righteousness, Matthew 3:13–15 [“Then cometh Jesus … unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying … comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said … it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness”].
3. Another law that Christ was subject to was the mediatorial law which contained those commands of God that he was subject to, not merely as man, nor yet as a Jew, but related purely to the execution of his mediatorial office. Such were the commands that the Father gave him to teach such doctrines, to preach the gospel, to work such miracles, to call such disciples, to appoint such ordinances, and finally to lay down his life. For Christ did all these things in obedience to commands that he had received of the Father, as he often tells us. And these commands he was not subject to merely as man, for they did not belong to other men; nor yet was he subject to ’em as Jew, for they were no part of the Mosaic law. But they were commands that he had received of the Father that purely respected the work he was to do in the world in his mediatorial office.1
Because He is God and man, Jesus Christ, was able–by His perfect life and atoning death–to merit righteousness for His people. By faith-union with Him, we have His righteousness imputed to us–just as our sin was imputed to Him at the cross.
When we come to consider the biblical teaching on justification, the first text that must be considered is Genesis 15:6. This passage (quoted by the apostle Paul on numerous occasions) is, of course, the locus classicus, in this discussion. O. Palmer Robertson has done an admirable job of culling together the various usages of this OT passage in the NT in his article 1980 WTJ article, “Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text.” Robertson makes the following significant observation about this passage:
As Genesis 15:6 records the first occurrence in scripture of the word “believed,” so it also records the first occurrence of the term “reckoned” (חשב). Yet the construction of the phrase and the subsequent usage of the term within the Pentateuch justifies a rather specific understanding in the sense of “account to him a righteousness that does not inherently belong to him.” The phraseology may not in itself exclude absolutely the possibility that the faith of Abraham was considered as his righteousness. But the context strongly pushes in another direction. The whole point is that Abraham trusts God rather than himself for his blessedness. His hope centers totally on God and his word for life.
One of the most important aspects of the text is that Abraham is not actually told to do anything. His response of faith was drawn out by the freeness of God’s promises. God didn’t tell Abraham to do anything when He promised him that He would make him heir of the world (Romans 4:13). This parallels God’s promise to our first parents after the fall. He didn’t tell them to do anything when He gave them the Gospel in the protoevangelium (Gen. 3:15). Now, it must be noted that God does call Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless. He also commands Abraham to offer up Isaac, but those commands follow Abraham’s being justified by faith alone in Genesis 15:6. Interesting, those who seek to bring law-keeping into play for justification forget that the law was given 430 years after Abraham. This is significant in the same way that the passover preceding Sinai, and the prologue of the Ten words preceding laws themselves, intimate. The Gospel is God’s work. Justifying “ungodly” sinners can only and ever be by faith alone. Now, that faith is shown to be genuine saving faith by the obedient fruits that it produces, but those fruits can never be brought into the act of justification itself.
Another significant passage to consider is Psalms 32:1-2. It might not be as clear from this passage how the imputation of righteousness is taught, however, that is precisely what Paul teaches in Romans 4. It is abundantly clear from Psalm 32:1-2 that the non-imputation of sin to the sinner is taught in light of the Gospel, but the positive imputation of the righteousness of God is more ellusive in the text. Robert Haldane handles the text masterfully by seeing in the word covered the totality of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. He wrote:
Covered. This appears to be in allusion to the mercy-seat, which covered the law. Sins must be covered before they can be forgiven. There must be a way in which this is done according to justice. This way is by the blood of Christ ; and he that is dead with Him is justified from sin, Eom. vi. 7. His sins are for ever covered, as being cast into the depths of the sea, Micah vii. 19. They are blotted out with the Saviour s blood. I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins, Isa. xliii. 25. He is saved from the guilt of sin immediately on his believing. The righteousness of the Saviour being imputed to the sinner, none of his own unrighteousness can attach to him; the imputation of both cannot take place. There is a full remission of his past sins, and none which he shall afterwards commit shall be judicially laid to his charge, Eom. viii. 33. Being stripped of the filthy garments, and clothed with a change of raiment, Zech. iii. 4, as certain as God is unchangeable, it shall never be taken off him. He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation; He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, Isa. Ixi. 10. I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more, Jer. xxxi. 34. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us, Ps. ciii. 12. Wearied at length, says Luther, with your own righteousness, rejoice and confide in the righteousness of Christ. Learn, my dear brother, to know Christ, and Christ crucified, and learn to despair of thyself, and to sing to the Lord this song : Lord Jesus ! Thou art my righteousness, but I am Thy sin. Thou hast taken what belonged to me ; Thou hast given me what was Thine. Thou becamest what Thou wert not, in order that I might become what I was not myself.
In addition to the witness of Moses and the Psalmist, the prophet Jeremiah spoke of the imputed righteousness of Christ when he described the Yahweh as “The LORD our righteousness.” All the righteousness that Israel needed was to be found in the righteousness of the LORD Himself. Believing Israelites knew from the prophet Isaiah that “all our works of righteousness are as filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). Anyone who trusts in personal attempts to establish righteousness rejects the righteousness that could be theirs by faith. This is precisely what Paul argues in Romans 10:4-5. Throughout their history, most Israelites were ignorant of the “righteousness of faith.” As Paul noted, they were constantly seeking to establish their own righteousness by the law. Had they known what Jeremiah was saying when he spoke of their God as “the LORD our righteousness,” they would have submitted to the “righteousness which is by faith.” It’s interesting to note that Jeremiah calls the name of the Redeemer “the LORD our Righteousness” in 23:6 and then speaks of the name of the Redeemed as “the LORD our righteousness” in 33:16. It is on account of the imputation of that righteousness from the Redeemer to the redeemed that accounts for the imputation of this title. There is perhaps no one who has expounded these passages better than George Whitefield did in his sermon “The LORD our Righteousness.”
The Temptation narrative highlights a significant feature of our Lord’s obedience for us in that it marks the beginning of His ministry and sets the tone for what follows. No sooner does the Son of God representatively submit Himself to a “baptism of repentance” (though He personally needed no repentance) that He receives the declaration from His Father, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The declaration showed that Jesus was indeed the eternal Son of God and that He was the obedient Son. God is pleased with obedience. Jesus was perfectly obedient. The Father unhesitatingly declares that the Son–in the act of obedience at the Redeemer–is the One in whom the Father is perfectly and fully pleased. It was at the baptism that Jesus also explained to John that in His undergoing this covenantal obligation he was “fulfilling all righteousness.” Every step of the Messianic way, Jesus was fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Law.
Immediately after His baptism Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It was there that He, as the second Adam and true Israel, would obey God perfectly as He was subjected to temptations similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden and Israel in the wilderness. Concerning Jesus as second Adam in the temptation narrative, David J. Macleod, in his article The Temptation of Christ, writes:
“Jesus, the last Adam, was tempted not in a garden, but in a wilderness, taking up the conflict exactly where the first Adam left it. Mark says that Jesus “was with the wild beasts” (1:13). Adam had lived in paradise and was at peace with his world. Jesus found Himself in the wilderness with wild
beasts—a reminder that our fallen world is lonely and fraught with danger.26 Jesus lived His life surrounded by all the consequences of the first Adam’s defeat, but He was to conquer the devil and win back the garden for the human race whose champion and representative He was.
The contrast between Adam the first and Adam the last demonstrates the falsity of the teaching that all mankind needs for the development of the goodness within him is a suitable environment. In spite of every favorable circumstance, Adam the first failed. In spite of every circumstance encouraging failure, Jesus was to stand firm. “Paradise was lost in a garden and regained in a wilderness.”
Macleod goes on to establish the link between the temptations in Eden and in the wilderness with the temptations of Jesus:
“There are three temptations recorded in Matthew and Luke.42 They are all variations on one great temptation, viz., to remove His Messianic vocation from the guidance of His Father.43 There are different emphases in the tests: First, as many students of the Bible have affirmed, the three forms of temptation are connected with those that brought sin into the world (1 John 2:16), viz., “the lust of the flesh (i.e., hunger) the lust of the eyes (i.e., worldly power and glory), and the boastful pride of life” (i.e., a sensational jump into the temple crowds). These three forms follow the order of Luke’s Gospel, which reverses Matthew’s second and third temptations.44
Second, as has also been frequently noted, the three temptations are directed against the three parts of Jesus’ human nature (1 Thess. 5:23). Again following Luke’s order, they are directed against the body (i.e., sense-consciousness and sense-satisfaction), the soul (i.e., self-consciousness and self-glorification), and the spirit (i.e., God-consciousness and God manipulation).
The quotations of Scripture by Jesus during the temptations seem to follow the sequence of Israel’s testing in Exodus: the provision of manna (Ex. 16), the testing at Massah requiring a miracle (Ex. 17), and the worship of the golden calf (Ex. 32).”4
It was necessary for the Son of God to demonstrate His obedience to His Father at this moment in redemptive history precisely because it would take an obedient man to conquer the one who had conquered man. It was also a foretaste of the entirety of His Messianic life. The apostle Paul tells us that He was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” While in the temptation account we see specifically the active obedience of Jesus, it is certainly true that this active obedience culminated in His passive obedience of His death on the cross. His whole life was a demonstration of what He demonstrated in a concentrated way at the beginning of His ministry. In this way Jesus was meriting righteousness for us as the Second Adam and Eschatological Israel. This also explains the significance of Romans 5 in the matter of justification.
Once-for-All Act or Ongoing Process?
Perhaps the most important question that remains to be answered is, “How do we know that justification is a ‘once-for-all act’ rather than an ongoing process?” This lies at the heart of the debate that has raged in recent years. Those who reject a “once-for-all” imputed righteousness to believing sinners must, of necessity, replace it with some sort of ongoing process. In other words, when we deny the biblical teaching on justification by faith alone we must put Spirit-wrought good works into the equation. Once we do so we inevitably end up making justification a process that is not complete until the consummation. This is one reason why eschatological justification is so important. When we talk of eschatological justification with Richard Gaffin we mean that, on Judgment Day, our Spirit-wrought good works merely serve as the “necessary evidence” of the justification we had in time. Those who reject forgiveness of sins and imputed righteousness as sufficient grounds for our standing before God speak of an eschatological justification in which our Spirit-wrought good works play into our final standing before God on the Day of Judgment. The former is in accord with the biblical teaching on the doctrine of justification, the latter conflates the doctrine of justification and sanctification. The latter is actually the position officially taught by the church of Rome. There is nothing Protestant or biblical about it. The former holds tightly to the Scriptural teaching that we have a “once-for-all” justification in time. The latter may give assent to a justification in time, however, proponents insist that it is insufficient for the Day of Judgment. So where in the Scriptures can we go to prove that justification is a “once-for-all” act of God?
In one of the earliest posts here at Feeding on Christ, I sought to give consideration to the context and teaching of Romans 4:9-12 with regard to the time element of justification:
“In the context of chapter 4, the apostle Paul explains the nature of justification by faith alone from the example of Abraham. Repeatedly citing the locus classicus, Gen. 15:16, Paul develops his argumentation based on the application of the covenant sign to Abraham. In one short passage, Paul posits justification at a specific point in time. He asks, “How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?” The answer is richer than most have acknowledged. Paul replies, “It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” The apostle eliminates the possibility of understanding justification as occurring after Abraham was circumcised. Our Reformed and Confessional statements on the doctrine of justification insist that it is a once-for-all ”act of God’s free grace” (WSC. 33). There are actually quite a few implications that we can take away from this observation. Interestingly, the majority of commentators only focus on the first of those listed below:
(1) The Jews do not have any special privileges above the Gentiles after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
(2) Abraham was justified at a particular point in time, as is true of those who believe after Abraham. He was not counted righteous after circumcision but before he was circumcised. We must make clear that there is no future imputation of righteousness. How was Abraham justified, while circumcised or while uncircumcised? Not while circumcised but while uncircumcised.
(3) Personal Law-keeping played absolutely no role in Abraham’s justification. In fact, the law came 430 years after Abraham (Gal. 3:17). It is completely out of the question when it comes to Abraham’s right standing before God. This is no insignificant detail, as Paul consistently takes us back to Abraham as the example of the “justified man.” It is by faith alone that Abraham was accepted as righteous before God. “Abraham believed in the LORD and He accounted it to Him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
This, it seems to me, is the most indisputable argument against those who would suggest that justification is ongoing. The apostle Paul clearly observed that Abraham’s justification was prior to his circumcision, and (if that wasn’t enough) explicitly states that righteousness wasn’t imputed after he was circumcised.
A Biblical Theology of Clothing
Thus far all of the biblical defense that has been given has been preeminently systematic and exegetical in nature. There is, however, one final and quite potent defense of the doctrine of imputed righteousness that must still be considered–a biblical theology of clothing.
When Adam and Eve sinned against God they lost their original righteousness. This became evident to them in that they perceived that they were naked and they sought to hide themselves from the LORD. Their physical nakedness became a symbol of their spiritual nakedness (i.e. their want of righteous standing before God). Instead of turing to God for pardon and covering, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This futile attempt became the symbol of all self-righteousness and attempts of human effort to bring oneself into a right standing before God. Having given Adam and Eve the Gospel (Gen. 3:15) in the curse on the serpent, The LORD does another remarkable thing–He comes and clothes our first parents with the skin of an animal. Most of the old Protestant theologians see in this–by good and necessary consequence–the first animal sacrifice followed by the symbolic act of imputing righteousness to the ones for whom the sacrifice was offered. This is entirely in keeping with what we have considered so far regarding the Scriptures teaching concerning justification. Justification occurs on the basis of the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus. Those for whom He died, when they believe are the recipients of His righteousness by faith.
As the biblical story develops we find every specific descriptions of the garements that the Priests ministering in the Temple were to commanded to wear. There were to were robes to cover their nakedness. This detail in the biblical narrative necessarily drives our thoughts back to the Garden and to the nakedness of our first parents. Many biblical scholars have noted, in recent years, the parallels between Adam in the Garden-Temple and the Priests ministering in the Tabernacle and Temple. It is most likely that God intended Israel to understand that Adam had failed as Priest–guarding the Holy Place (i.e. the Garden-Temple) from the pollutions of the Evil One. In the Covenant of Grace, God was reestablishing a Priesthood for the mediatorial work of reconciling God and man in holiness. For these reasons the Priests had to wear holy garments.
When we come to the prophetic ministry in Israel we read of restoration prophecies which the LORD promised to fulfill in the days and in the work of the Messiah. One of the richest promises that God makes to Israel is that He will “cover them with robes of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). This would, no doubt, bring Israel’s mind back to the Garden of Eden and to the covering that God provided for our first parents. It was also meant to bring their minds to the priesthood and the holy garments that covered the nakedness of the Priests, allowing them to go into the presence of God.
During the prophetic era of Israel’s history we also find one of the most clear illustrations of imputed righteousness under the figure of clean garments. In Zechariah 3 we read of Joshua the High Priest standing before the LORD. As the High Priest, Joshua was the one who was appointed to go into the Most Holy Place to minister. It was abominable if he was defiled by his own sin. In this case, we read of the sinful defilement of Joshua under the figure of him wearing “filthy garments.” Satan stood beside him to oppose him–accusing him of all the sinful pollution of his life under the figure of these “filthy garments.” Then in an unexpected act, the LORD gave the command, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” He then turned to Joshua and said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” This is as clear a picture of justification that anyone can find in the entirety of the Scriptures. Sins forgiven and a gracious covering with righteous robes.
When we move into the New Testament, we find less narratival and more didactic treatment of the subject of justification. There are, however, a few distinct elusive allusions and illustrations pointing in this direction in the Gospel narratives. In the first place we read details in the Markan record that lead us to draw the same conclusions about the use of garments to denote sin nature and imputed righteousness. One of the principle Gospel events in which an elusive allusion to garments finds significance is in the account of Bartimaues (Mark 10:46-52). There we read of a blind man whose only possession was a garment which he probably held onto to keep him warm at night. When he hears of the Savior passing by he does everything he can to make sure that he is seen and heard by the Savior. When Jesus finally calls him to come to Him, Mark notes that he “throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus” (10:50).
In his article “Why Mention the Garment?” R. Allen Culpepper defends the idea that in the casting off of the garment Bartimaeus was symbolically leaving behind everything he had to follow Jesus. He notes the significance of the plethora of references to “garments” in Mark’s record when he writes:
The chain of references to ιμάτια in Mark also suggests that it has symbolic value. In the dispute over fasting Jesus says that if one has an old garment one does not attempt to patch it with new (unshrunken) cloth (2:21). If he does, the new will tear from the old and there will be a worse tear. Jesus’ garments, however, mediate his healing power and are consequently thought to have magical power (5:27-30; 6:56). They too are transformed at his transfiguration (9:3). Shortly after Bartimaeus casts aside his garment to follow Jesus, others throw their garments on the colt for Jesus and spread them in “the way” (11:7-8). Having left his garment behind, the disciple is not to go back to get it when the eschatological crisis (or the war) comes, for to do so would be to risk destruction (13:16). This pattern seems to indicate that in Mark the old garment represents that which the disciple must leave behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ garments are sufficient for the believer, so it is fitting that Jesus goes to the cross in them. The soldiers cast lots for these prizes (15:20, 24), but the centurion was nearer to healing than they.
The case for this argument would certainly be strengthened if Mark had included the positive clothing of the blind man. In the Synoptics there is another elusive allusion to the positive clothing of sinners. Consider Luke’s account of the Gadarene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39). Jesus is met by a man who was several possessed with demons. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the awful condition of this man when they tell us that he lived in the tombs, was chained to a cave, constantly broke free so that no one could contain him, cut himself with stones and that he was naked. This man was a picture of the depravity of all men by nature. After Jesus casts the thousands of demons out of him, Luke tells us that the man was found “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” Here we have a posit allusion of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. So where does the garment theology find its biblical-theological center?
John 19:23 might be the strongest defense of the figure of a garment being used to denote the righteousness of Christ. As John traced the historical steps of the crucifixion, he wove in theological themes and allusions. Whether it was the fact that they did not break Jesus’ bones, or that water and blood flowed out of his side, John was preeminently interested in the theological meaning behind the death of Jesus. What then are we to make of John recording that Jesus’ “tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece” (John 19:23)? Clearly there is an allusion to the Old Testament Priest with his woven, seamless garment. Jesus is the great High Priest to which all the OT priests pointed. Here He is engaged in the work of redemption, the sacrifice of Himself at Calvary. But can we go further than this with the allusion? Though some would charge them of spiritualizing it was altogether common to find many of the post-Reformation theologians referring to Jesus’ seamless robe as a symbol of the seamless robe of righteousness that believers get from Jesus. If it is a symbol of the Priest’s clothing, and the Priest’s clothing was a symbol of ritual holiness, it is no illegitimate jump to conclude that it is indeed a symbol of the righteousness of the High Priest Jesus Christ, which is given to His people by faith.
At the outset of this article we noted the danger of conflating justification and sanctification. There is, however, another danger–namely, separating justification and sanctification so as to downplay the importance of sanctification. While the imputed righteousness of Christ is sufficient for us on the day of judgment, it is not the only aspect of salvation that the Scriptures teach us about. God is not only committed to removing our guilt, He is also committed to cleansing our corrupt natures. When we come to the last book of the Bible we discover how the work of God in justification and sanctification come together in glorious consummation. The saints who stand in glory with Jesus was repeatedly said to be “clothed in white robes” (Rev. 4:4; 7:9; 7:13; and 14). When John asks who these clothed in white robes are, the Angel explained to him that “these are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” While the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness is not explicitly stated here, clearly the garments of the saints are said to be what they are because of His sacrificial death. Just as that first covering of Adam and Eve was intimately related to the sacrifice, so it is for us spiritually. It must be pointed out that the robes of the saints are also said to be the sanctified good works of the saints wrought by the Spirit of God (Rev. 19:8); but this in no way takes away from the biblical teaching on the imputed righteousness of Jesus in justification. Justification and Sanctification are always distinct, yet inseparable benefits of Christ by faith. John Calvin once noted that to separate justification and sanctification is to “tear Christ apart.” He unequivocally stated in the strongest language possible that justification by faith alone was “the principle of the whole doctrine of salvation and of the foundation of all religion.”
In a day when the precious doctrine of justification is under attack, it is incumbent upon us to define and defend it at every turn. We must be careful to understand the biblical teaching on it, believe it and defend it. If you are in Christ by faith alone then you are legally righteous before God. You will never be any more justified or any less justified than you are at this moment. This is a liberating doctrine that promotes the sanctification God is working into you by the same faith that justified you. Paul unhesitatingly tells believer that they “have been justified” (Rom. 5:1). Knowing these marvelous truths we relish the peace with God that we have by faith and “rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
Further articles and audio resources on Justification
Simon Gathercole What Did Paul Really Mean? (Written for Christianity Today)
Simon Gathercole Torah, Life and Salvaion: Leviticus 18:5 in Early Judaism and the New Perspective
(Scholarly article showing that proponents of the NPP have misread literature of Second Temple Judaism)
Joseph A. Pipa Contemporary Attacks on Justification
Michael Horton Nine Points on the New Perspective (Part 1)
Michael Horton Nine Points on the New Perspective (Part 2)
Michael Horton Nine Points on the New Perspective (Part 3)
Christ the Center (Audio Interviews)
Guy Prentiss Waters N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification Part 1 (MP3)
Guy Prentiss Waters N.T. Wright’s Doctrine of Justification Part 2 (MP3)
John Fesko The Reformed Doctrine of Justification (MP3)
Simon Gathercole Where is Boasting?
On one of the best 2 minute defense of the doctrine of imputed righteousness, Listen to Sinclair Ferguson giving a compact explanation here.
1. Jonathan Edwards A History of the Work of Redemption (WJE Online vol. 9) pp. 309-310
2. John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.) 1955. Pages 19-50.
4. For a fuller treatment of the obedience of Jesus in the temptation narrative see David J. Macleod’s article “The Temptation of Christ” and an article I wrote titled, “The Obedience of the Second Adam and True Israel.”