|Who Was Right: Luther or Calvin?
The Dynamic, Ongoing Nature of Justification by Faith
Luther's brilliant insight into one aspect of justification by faith has largely been lost or overlooked. He conceived of justification by faith as a dynamic, ongoing action in the divine-human relationship. This important concept is so completely foreign to most evangelical circles today that we should take some time to consider it and its far-reaching consequences.
To start with, most evangelicals think of justification by faith as a final, once-in-a-lifetime act. In his masterful book on The Doctrine of Justification, James Buchanan says that justification by faith "is a complete, final, and irreversible act of divine grace . . . at once and forever." p. 138. He even says that this is what "the Reformers held and taught." That is not quite correct. The view he expresses does not represent Luther, Melancthon, and the whole Lutheran wing of the Reformation.1
We have no intention of crying up one of the great branches of Reformation thought against the other. The two should be seen as complementary rather than competing.
Distinguishing Between Justification by Faith and the Finished Work of Christ.
If Dr. Buchanan had said, "God's redemptive act in Christ is a final and irreversible act of divine grace . . . at once and forever," he would have been on solid ground. But he does what is often done in evangelical circles — he equates justification by faith with the finished work of Christ. They must, of course, be vitally related; but they should not be equated.
The "finished work" (Heb. 10:10-14, for instance) relates to the Christ event. By doing and dying Christ made reconciliation for iniquity and brought in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24). He put away sin, defeated all the powers that were arrayed against us, destroyed death, and brought to light life and immortality (Heb. 9:26; Co!. 2:15; 2 Tim. 1:10). This Christ event was so decisive and final that we call it "inaugurated eschatology" — meaning that the end-time events such as judgment, outpouring of God's wrath, resurrection, etc., have already taken place in Jesus Christ. The end of the world ("consummated eschatology") will merely be an unveiling, or cosmic disclosure, of what has already happened in Jesus Christ.
We are now living in "the times between." Those powers which are against Christ are allowed to maintain their facade of power, and the unbelieving world does not know that they have already been defeated by the decisive victory of Jesus Christ. Believers, however, know what has happened — that sin, death, the world and Satan have been vanquished by Christ — and they therefore wait in patience and confidence for reality to be openly disclosed at the coming of Jesus Christ.
Says the apostle Paul, ". . . all that believe are justified . . ." Acts 13:39. This makes a clear distinction between the finished work of Christ and justification by faith. The "finished work" took place before we came to faith. It is still a "finished work" whether men believe it or not. But not so with the personal justification of sinners. This only takes place when they "hear the word of the gospel, and believe." Acts 15:7.
". . . all that believe are justified . . ." There is more in this brief statement than meets the eye of the casual reader. Let us look carefully at the two main words here — believe and justified.
Believe. The verb believe in Acts 13:39 is in the present tense. This is in keeping with the general pattern of the New Testament's use of pisteuo. Most of our readers will know that the Greek present tense is present continuous. So Acts 13:39 means that "all that believe and keep on believing are justified," or "all that believe and continue to believe are justified." And no one else!
The atonement of Christ on the cross was a once-for-all act. But our laying hold of it in faith is no once-for-all act. The redemptive act of Christ benefits only those who believe and keep on believing. Justification is by faith. Where there is no present, living faith, there is no justification.
Justified. Acts 13:39 also puts justified in the present tense. This is not an isolated case in the New Testament. Other great Pauline passages set forth justification as present continuous. For example:
. . . being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . — Rom. 3:24.
It is true that justified also appears in the aorist tense — meaning that it is done at once as a completed action. This underlines the important concept that God does not justify the believer piecemeal. There is no such thing as being more and more justified. There are no degrees of acceptance with God. To be justified is to be wholly justified. All this is implied in the aorist tense. But that is not all that needs to be said about being justified. There is a dimension other than aoristic. The use of the present continuous brings out another vital aspect. Justification is not static. It is dynamic and ongoing. Passages like Acts 13:39, Romans 3:24 and Romans 4:5 mean that as we constantly believe, God constantly justifies.
. . .justified by faith without the deeds of the law. — Rom. 3:28.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. — Rom. 4:5.
From the human side this means that the Christian, always aware of his falling short yet always reminded of what Christ has done, continues to believe in Him who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). As Luther said, "No saint regards and confesses himself to be righteous, but he always asks and waits to be justified." — Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, p.113.
From the divine side it means that God continues to justify those who continue to seek His mercy.
For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sin and implore God for the merciful gift of His righteousness, they are for this very reason always reckoned righteous by God. — Ibid., p.125.
Thus, we confess that we are sinners, and with our weeping, penitence, grieving, and tears we show that we are sinners also in our own eyes. As soon, namely, as such fear and uneasiness cease, the sense of security lays hold of us; and where security prevails, the divine decree of counting our sin to us is again in force, for God has decided that He will not impute sin to anyone who implores His mercy with fear and trembling. — Ibid., p.135.
The present continuous nature of justification was the genius of Luther's emphasis; and we submit that it is truly biblical and Pauline. To Luther, justification was no mere initiatory action in the soteriological process. It was no mere filling station along the way or no mere door to enter but once. Luther taught that to accept justification in faith is our whole work for. our whole Christian life. We never get beyond it. We never learn it too well. And thus, for Luther, justification by faith is always kept at the center. In "The Disputation Concerning Justification" in 1536, the Reformer gave voice to his view of the dynamic, ongoing nature of justification. Said he:
. . . forgiveness of sins is not a matter of a passing work or action, but comes from baptism which is of perpetual duration, until we arise from the dead. — Luther's Works (American ed.; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955- ), Vol.34, p.163.
. . . Forgiveness of sins is not a matter of a passing work or action, but of perpetual duration. For the forgiveness of sins begins in baptism and remains with us all the way to death, until we arise from the dead, and leads us into life eternal. So we live continually under the remission of sins. Christ is truly and constantly the liberator from our sins, is called our Savior, and saves us by taking away our sins. If, however, he saves us always and continually, then we are constantly sinners. — Ibid., p.164.
On no condition is sin a passing phase, but we are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins and by the justification of God's mercy. Sin remains, then, perpetually in this life, until the hour of the last judgment comes and then at last we shall be made perfectly righteous. — Ibid., p.167.
For the forgiveness of sins is a continuing divine work, until we die. Sin does not cease. Accordingly, Christ saves us perpetually. — Ibid., p.190.
Daily we sin, daily we are continually justified, just as a doctor is forced to heal sickness day by day until it is cured. — Ibid.,p. 191.
Distinguishing Between Justification by Faith and Eschatology
Justifying faith looks in two directions. It looks back to the finished work of Christ and forward to the eschatological judgment. The finished work of Christ is the ground of justification. Faith rests on that which is absolutely complete. We need to also consider how justification by faith relates to the end-time judgment.
Justification is a forensic word which has reference to trial and judgment. It is a term of the law court. It implies that one has come before the divine court and has been pronounced righteous. As George Eldon Ladd aptly comments, "Justification . . . is the decree of the divine Lawgiver and Judge that a man is free from all guilt and condemnation. As such, it is an eschatological event that belongs to the day of judgment at the end of the world." — George Eldon Ladd, "Unity and Variety in New Testament Faith," Christianity Today, Nov.19, 1965.
The Bible teaches that there will be a final judgment upon this earthly life. Even believers must stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). In faith the needy sinner may anticipate the verdict of the Judge even now. For all who repent and rely on the merits of the atonement the verdict is "Not guilty! — Righteous!" This present justification, which is by faith, is in view of the judgment and anticipates the judgment. The blessings which will be bestowed upon the righteous on the day of judgment are already possessed in faith. But the believer does not possess them in such a way that makes the final judgment irrelevant or unnecessary.
Luther captured the spirit of the Psalmist, who sighs and longs for judgment day and who frequently and fervently implores the Judge to arise and judge His people. Paul waits for the crown of righteousness to be given him by the righteous Judge (2 Tim. 4:8; Gal. 5:5).
Those who confuse justification by faith with the finished work of Christ inevitably confuse it with the end-time judgment. If present justification is a finished work (God's final verdict upon the believer), what is the point of an eschatological judgment? Such a view does not do justice to the biblical tension between the now and the not yet. It robs the final judgment of its biblical force. It is in the final judgment that the decree is pronounced, "He that is justified, let him be justified still." Rev. 22:11. Like Calvary, this decree is final, forever and irreversible. Meanwhile justification is present and continuous as long as faith is present and continuous.
The Consequences of Overlooking the Dynamic, Ongoing Nature of Justification by Faith
Failure to grasp the dynamic, present continuous nature of justification by faith can have some very serious consequences. We will mention six of them:
1. It results in a failure to keep justification by faith at the center of the soteriological process. How can justification remain the vital center if it is seen merely as an initiatory, once-in-a-lifetime event? Are we to suggest that this doctrine has great significance in the matter of becoming Christians, but not so much for the matter of being Christians? If justification is a door a person enters but once, how can it avoid becoming a fading memory? With too many, justification has become equated with the single conversion event. So it is easy to reason, "Doesn't the writer to the Hebrews tell us to get past the first principles of Christian initiation? Justification is good for those making their first start, but we need to get past it and on to higher things. Oh, a little nostalgia is permissible on Reformation Sunday."
2. It results in a preoccupation with a kind of sanctification which has no vital relation to justification. (We submit that the Bible sees sanctification as justification in action.) By way of illustration we refer to Buchanan's two very worthy books, The Doctrine of Justification and The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit. Although it contains a lot of excellent material, in many respects his second book is very disappointing. It does not vitally relate the Holy Spirit's work to justification. Like many of the works of the Puritans, it just shows "how easy it is to get lost when one treats of internal grace." — Berkouwer. Yet for Buchanan this was almost unavoidable on his own premise that justification by faith is "final . . . at once and forever." He kisses justification goodbye at the gate and wanders off to consider sanctification on its own. If this happens with the giants of divinity like Buchanan, what might we expect to happen to the rank and file who follow the same theological system? When sanctification becomes separated from justification, it is no longer the joyful, spontaneous justification in action. We find ourselves resorting to all sorts of devices and gimmicks to motivate us along the path of Bible holiness.
3. For some, this relegation of justification to a one-time event opens the door to the error of "second blessing-ism." What happens is this: A certain person has some Christian encounter which he has been taught to regard as his moment of justification forever. The further he gets along in the matter of living the Christian life, the further he gets away from justification which took place "back there." He loses the freshness and wonder of acceptance with God and perhaps begins to backslide. He comes to the place where he desperately wants to recapture a dynamic experience. Instead of being directed again to the gate of justification — which alone brings the Spirit of joy, peace and love (Rom. 5:1-11) — and feeling he has no need to seek what he supposes is automatically his, he begins to look elsewhere, saying, "I've been justified. What lack I yet?"
Now the door is wide open to the merchants of new-fangled experiences such as speaking in tongues — things calculated to stimulate the flagging zeal of those who are many days journey away from justification by faith.
When we turn to the New Testament, we see that it is justification that sets the church on fire and keeps it on fire. This is what opens the door to the Spirit and opens the mouth of the apostle in that song of inspiring confidence and holy cheer (Rom. 8:3039). The best protection against the error of the "second blessing" is to teach people to feed on the first blessing. Justification is like the manna that had to be gathered daily. Yesterday's supply cannot be hoarded for tomorrow. It is the privilege of God's people to be ever grasping the blessing anew, fresh from glory.
Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me. This I recall to mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness. — Lam. 3:19-23.
4. Relegating justification by faith to a one-time, final event has opened the door to the popular but delusive notion that "faith for a moment brings life for eternity." Some of our evangelical brethren will even doubt whether a person is in the good old Protestant faith if he questions this dogma. Yet to start with, Luther and the whole Lutheran stream of Reformation thought stood against it. Further, this teaching is not even true to the doctrine of Calvin and the Reformed tradition, which balances the matter with the stern doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. We do not say these things because we think that the Reformers were necessarily correct, but to point out how absurd it is to make this idea a test of orthodoxy.
Modern-day writers like R.B. Thieme, Jr., will advocate that if a man is converted, he might then give up the faith, become an atheist, and do anything at all, but will still be saved. That is not the Bible doctrine of the security of the believer, but is the presumptuous notion of security for an unbeliever. We agree with Reformed scholar John Murray, who says:
It is one of the most perilous distortions of the doctrine of grace, and one that has carried with it the saddest records of moral and spiritual disaster, to assume that past privileges, however high they may be, guarantee the security of men irrespective of perseverance in faith and holiness. — John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p.199.
The false idea of continuing security apart from continuing faith grows out of the confusion of justification by faith with the finished work of Christ. True, the idea of "once saved, always saved" is a reduction and a caricature which does not do justice to the great stream of thought known as Calvinism. Yet it can easily grow out of the failure to recognize the dynamic, ongoing nature of justification by faith. Evangelicals today would be enriched by considering the insight that Luther had into Pauline thought. Then we would see a greater willingness to exegete the book of Hebrews without indulging in a lot of fancy footwork around texts whose import is transparently obvious.
5. The limitation of justification to a once-for-all event results in an artificial distinction between justification and forgiveness. Since it is as clear as the sun that we need to be continually forgiven, some have therefore contended that in this respect forgiveness is different from justification.
We submit that this distinction between justification and forgiveness is altogether an artificial theological device which is quite unbiblical. True, justification is a broader term than forgiveness, implying not only pardon but a positive verdict of righteousness. Yet the Bible does at times use the two expressions to describe the one blessing. Note:
Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that believe are justified from all things . —Acts l3:38,39.
In his Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melancthon appealed to these scriptures to show that justification consists in forgiveness of sins and not, as the Romanists contended, an infusion of righteousness. We have already seen how Luther, in "The Disputation Concerning Justification," freely uses justification and forgiveness interchangeably.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. — Rom. 4:5-7.
It is our privilege as well as our duty to keep praying for forgiveness, even as our Lord taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Blessed is the man who does this and goes down to his house justified — daily.
6. Finally, the Bible doctrine of a final judgment, even for believers, has been rendered empty and meaningless by this sort of teaching about justification by faith which amounts to a premature seizure of the glory that shall be. Present justification is like the token of our final vindication on judgment day which the Judge sends on ahead to lure us on with confidence to the day of judgment. Being now justified by faith means that we will not stand in that judgment as defendants in the dock, but as plaintiffs who have a good case. We may expect not only a favorable verdict, but "heavy damages" against the enemy as well as the restoration of our "first dominion." Faith is therefore the substance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1). We do not hope for that which we already have (Rom. 8:24). Let us therefore beware lest we teach a view of justification which robs God's people of their hope.
1 It is also doubtful whether this view does real justice to Calvin's position. In his treatment on justification, see his chapter entitled "The Beginning of Justification, In What Sense Progressive." — Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, chap. 14. Here Calvin comes very close to reflecting Luther's concept of the present continuous nature of justification. This original Reformation focus seemed to slip out of view in later Protestant scholasticism