Who knows? Maybe that title will end up on a book in the not too distant future. But one thing is for sure: I’m simply amazed that a few blog entries interacting with a theologian’s denial of what used to be assumed to be a central, important aspect of theological teaching and belief (the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer as the sole ground of his or her standing before God, not as some separate thing outside of Christ, but as a vitally important truth regarding why we have true and full peace with God through Christ) could produce such an amazing amount of “chatter.” But despite the fact that I haven’t even completed my brief, basic, hardly-to-be-called in-depth interaction with the important section of Dr. Mark Seifrid’s book, Christ, Our Righteousness, it seems I have truly stirred up a hornet’s nest by daring to even note the presence of his teaching on imputation, let alone anything else. Evidently, if you cite someone, in context, correctly, and do not agree, but instead ask questions of their position and point out problems with it, this is considered by some as an “attack.” I do not know how we are to engage in discussion of vital issues if we are prohibited by some kind of political correctness from even noting our disagreement and, if need be, rejection of what someone else is promoting. But it is even more mind-boggling that someone who believes in the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ in accord with the confessions of Presbyterian and Baptists churches would find resistance in defending that faith from those who once confessed the same beliefs! I well know all those who are denying part or all of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ say that you still “get” the same final result in their systems. I don’t buy it. But why would anyone think that we are in some fashion guilty of “attacking” someone merely by reviewing their claims and responding to them in the fashion we have? It is an incredible commentary on how deeply theological dialogue has been influenced by society: just as you dare not state a position in the context of “right and wrong” in the political realm, so too we dare not raise the specter that someone might just be wrong in something they say in the theological realm.
Now, if your memory is a bit fuzzy, I have taken the time to bookmark the articles directly related to my reviewing the relevant material in Seifrid’s Christ, our Righteousness. There are five blog entries, all in the month of July.
There, that was easy. As you review this material, remember that Seifrid has said that the distinction of the active and passive obedience of Christ (which underlies the theological foundation of Southern Seminary as well as the London Baptist Confession of Faith) is “unnecessary and misleading,” and that to teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, at least as Seifrid imagines it has been taught by later generations of ‘Protestant divines’ ” inadvertently bruised the nerve which runs between justification and obedience.” These are not small assertions, no matter how “nuanced” they may be. They have far-reaching implications. What is this “nerve” and what is its function? How does this relate to “works of covenant faithfulness”? How is it any different for Paul’s opponents to say his doctrine of grace led to licentiousness?
We had gotten to the following section on page 175:
It is not so much wrong to use the expression ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ’ as it is deficient. Paul, after all, speaks of the forgiveness of sins, of reconciliation to God, the gift of the Spirit, ‘salvation’ and so on. But his teaching on justification is more comprehensive than any of these, and provides the framework in which they are to be understood. Even where he speaks of ‘salvation’ and not justification, the essential elements of the latter appear alongside the former. If we fail to capture the sense of the whole, the pieces themselves lose their significance. It is better to say with Paul that our righteousness is found, not in us, but in Christ crucified and risen. The Westminster Confession (and that of my own institution) puts the matter nicely when it speaks of ‘receiving and resting on [Christ] and his righteousness by faith’. (Christ, Our Righteousness, 175).
Given the controversy that has erupted by merely seeking to bring clarity to this issue, I now feel it is necessary to expand our response to cover other issues in passing. Specifically, to point out the apologetic impact of attempting to make such a fine distinction as saying it is not really “wrong” to speak of imputation but is instead “deficient.” Apologetically, what is a “deficient” statement of truth? Should we not avoid such deficient statements of truth? Does it not follow that we should not speak of imputation when responding to Rome’s teachings, for example? Does Dr. Seifrid understand the usefulness of such a statement to one who promotes a denial of the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith or the London Baptist Confession?
Why is it “deficient”to speak as Reformed theologians have spoken for so long? Was Machen’s dying hope, as expressed, we are told, in a telegram to John Murray, in the active obedience of Christ, a “deficient” hope? Seifrid says it is deficient to speak of the imputed righteousness of Christ, seemingly, because “It is better to say with Paul that our righteousness is found, not in us, but in Christ crucified and risen.” This assumes, it seems, some kind of almost “spatial separation” in the Reformed doctrine of imputation, as if by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us as our present, precious possession and the very ground of our peace with God forensically, that it is no longer really Christ’s righteousness, and that it somehow exists outside of Christ. But this would require us to believe the Westminster divines and all who have likewise confessed the imputed righteousness of Christ thought you could separate Christ from His righteousness, and that union with Christ is somehow not to be connected with the rest of the perfect work of salvation accomplished in Him. As we have noted before this is an element of Seifrid’s presentation that we find baseless. Are there some who have focused so much upon one element of divine revelation as to lose focus on other elements? Of course. Does this mean we then must abandon the very differentiation that makes sense of the entire revelation of the gospel in Scripture? Surely not.
We have already had opportunity to note that the phrase Dr. Seifrid quotes, “receiving and resting on [Christ] and his righteousness by faith” is actually representative of a fuller statement in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, in the London Baptist Confession, and in the writings of James P. Boyce. It is very, very hard to avoid the conclusion that this work is indeed asserting that the profession of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as found in those documents is without biblical warrant, even if understandable in certain contexts.
This continued, we believe, erroneous representation of historic Reformed theology’s presentation of the truth of justification and especially the reality of the imputation of the “alien righteousness” of Christ to the believer continues on page 176, where we read:
In raising the foregoing criticism, we are touching upon problems which attend Protestant placement of justification within in an ‘order of salvation’ (ordo salutis). According to Paul, ‘justification’ has to do with Christ’s cross and resurrection for us “the whole of salvation” and therefore cannot be reduced to an event which takes place for the individual at the beginning of the Christian life. The problem deepens when ‘justification’ is made to follow ‘regeneration’, a sequence which was constructed in order to allow for the response of faith prior to the justification of the individual. In this case, the limitation of the justifying event to the act of faith threatens to diminish the significance of the cross. If ‘justification’ occurs only upon my believing (or being regenerated), we must conclude that the cross creates the precondition for justification, but not its reality. Indeed, when faith (or regeneration) is given this independent role, the cross appears as an arbitrary means by which God has chosen to justify humanity. Paul, in contrast, locates justification wholly in Christ, and yet makes justification contingent upon faith (see 2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Rom. 3:22, 25). Christ’s cross and resurrection are the whole of justification, but that justification must be ‘distributed’ through preaching and faith: God reconciled the world to himself through Christ, and yet has committed the ‘word of reconciliation’ to the apostles (2 Cor. 5:19). As we have seen, faith for Paul is nothing more than ‘hearing’ the good news, the reception of that already accomplished and given, a mirror-reflection of the word of promise (Gal. 3:1-5; Rom. 10:14-17). Consequently, if we reduce the dimensions of ‘justification’ to an ‘order of salvation’ constructed around the human being we distort Paul’s message.
It will take some work to “unpack” all of this, but as an over-all comment it should be stated that again we find the foundational assumption that the ordo salutis (which is under attack from all angles in our day) is somehow an improper, external, artificial contrivance that leads to a “distortion” of the biblical message, to be in error. It functions upon the assumption that the revelation of God in Scripture is insufficient to allow us to know the truth with enough clarity to identify the constant errors men intrude into the gospel so as to “borrow” some element of God’s glory for themselves (the constant penchant of men, and the necessary action of false teachers seeking to draw disciples away for themselves). But for those who think that all we need to do when examining such theological writings as this is allow for the proper “nuances” so that any and all statements can be made to “fit” within confessional boundaries, it should be noted that the language of the final sentence should be clear enough for everyone. Obviously, I do not believe the men of Westminster or the London Confession (“later Protestant divines”) were “reducing” the dimensions of justification at all by speaking of imputation, active and passive obedience, or the like: indeed, we are seeking to defend the fullness of the truths they so clearly propounded from the text of Scripture. But no matter how scholarly the context, when we speak of distorting Paul’s message, we are touching upon the very core of gospel truth itself.
Tomorrow we will work through the above paragraph. Is it wrong to speak of having been justified? Are we wrong to look back upon our justification and to distinguish it, in our experience, and in its meaning and application, from sanctification, or other aspects of Christ’s work of salvation? Does a statement like “Christ’s cross and resurrection are the whole of justification, but that justification must be ‘distributed’ through preaching and faith” truly represent the Pauline argument, especially in the context under discussion?
Finally, one further comment on our motivations. We have been deeply disturbed by reports from various locations that simply reviewing and disagreeing with an openly published book is being construed by some as an “attack.” We realize that in the political climate of our day anyone who speaks the truth is liable to be accused of “attacking” others, whether what they say is true or not. But the doctrine of justification is not a political issue. And it is just here that we see one of the main problems that arises when the world’s view of scholarship invades the church: the great truths of the gospel itself become mere “theological paradigms” to be discussed in the classically academic fashion, but never to be passionately defended, never to be discussed in such a way that it might just be said that someone is wrong in what they are saying. What is worse, it seems that in that all-too-common context, one can hold almost any position, and then “nuance” it enough to make it “fit” into any confessional mold, even if it is self-evidently not what the original writers of confessional statements intended. Such a framework is death to meaningful apologetics, and, we would further add, to the clear proclamation of the truth in the church. We do not need less specificity and more confusion concerning the nature of God’s work in Christ in the church today. We address this issue out of the conviction that God’s Word is significantly clearer than the vast majority of scholarly writing and that the truths it presents are the precious possession of God’s people. We lay our case before the Lord himself to examine our motivations and our hearts, and pray that God will be pleased to place in the hearts of all of His servants a burning desire to have as our first priority “the truth of the gospel,” the love of which prompted Paul to speak boldly in public in rebuke of Peter himself.