In 2011 a colleague and I formally debated the resolution: “On the day of Judgment, God will declare Christians just, not because of anything done by them, nor because of anything worked through them or done in them, but solely because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them.” This is a statement of the classic reformed doctrine of justification, a doctrine on which Luther claimed the church either stands or falls. In Reformed theology this is the gospel that one must believe in order to be saved. In other words, the gospel is that Christians are declared righteous before God’s tribunal because of faith alone on the exclusive basis of the righteousness of Jesus charged [imputed] to their account. This debate proved to be a watershed for me in my theological development because it was a moment of clarity. I argued the negative position well enough that many thought I had won. But more importantly, my preparatory study of the issue and the experience of seeing my argument stand-up in a head-to-head clash with a very capable proponent of the classic Reformed position convinced me that my longtime misgivings about the doctrine of justification by faith alone were not without merit.
I entered the Reformed Protestant subculture in early high school, and it was there that I first began to take my faith seriously. While the idea that there was a personal element to genuine faith was new and transformative for me, I was especially fascinated by the dynamic Bible teaching that appealed to my intellect and love of history. Invigorated by the gospel of justification by faith alone and the importance of proper content to my faith, a started doing my own serious Bible study in the Gospel of Matthew. I still remember encountering Jesus’ explanation of the final judgment in Matthew 25 and feeling a slight bewilderment that He never once mentioned faith as the basis for welcoming “the sheep” into his kingdom. Jesus bestowed the eternal reward on them because they had lived lives of service to the needy. As Winston Churchill once said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” What else was a novice Christian and Bible student to do when all of the great men he admired from the past and present declared with such authority that anything other than justification by faith alone was a false gospel, and those who preached and believed it were damned? I pressed on in my Bible study and Reformed orthodoxy, but that passage stayed with me like a stone in my shoe.
Because Reformed theology is such a tight, logical system that can appear impregnable as long as Scripture is read through it, it afforded me a sense of assurance that I had the truth, but when I would visit the key passages that “proved” the doctrine, the idea seemed elusive, and the stone reemerged. For instance, Romans 4:5 says, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted [imputed] as righteousness.” The phrase “righteousness of Christ” is nowhere in the text though Reformed theology posits “Christ’s righteousness” as the thing imputed. What’s more, it is faith that is “imputed” to us as “righteousness.” My unease intensified a bit when I discovered that the Westminster Confession of Faith expressly contradicts this scripture in Chapter 11 on Justification. The Confession reads, “He also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them…; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them as their righteousness…” The floor below me began to shift in that house of mirrors as I noticed that the Confession bizarrely cites Romans 4:5 as a proof text for this assertion!?
As I worked through the New Testament over the years, I couldn’t help but wonder why, if the idea of justification by faith alone is so central to the gospel, Jesus didn’t devote long discourses to it and revisit the idea throughout his teaching ministry. Oddly, Jesus never mentions it even once, but makes obedience to his commands a non-negotiable for salvation (Matthew 7:21 – 27) and taking up the cross an indispensable mark of true discipleship (Mark 8:34). Each time someone asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus strangely responds with something they must do (Mark 10:17 – 22; Luke 10:25ff) instead of assuring them that they need only place their faith in Him. Why doesn’t he explain to them that all of their efforts are tainted by sin and unacceptable to a holy God? Why would He take the chance that someone might read his words in the Gospels and think that eternal life is a reward for those who lay down their lives for their enemies or serve the needy (Matthew 25:31 – 46) when such thinking is adding sinful human “works” to the gospel and damning their souls? If Jesus never preached justification by faith alone, did he ever preach the gospel? The four gospels are entirely devoid of the “gospel” as it is found in Reformed confessions.
Maybe Jesus’ teaching served a preparatory purpose since it took place before his death and resurrection and that is why such a key element is missing. However, none of the evangelistic sermons in Acts includes an exposition or even a mention of justification by faith alone (Acts 2, 3, 7, 10, 13, 17, 22, 24, 25, and 28). At the center of the apostolic orations is a retelling of the story of Jesus with an emphasis on His resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God from which he reigns over all. Jesus’ death on a cross is part of the message as is forgiveness, but there is no talk of imputation or the “double exchange” whereby our sins are imputed to the Messiah and the Messiah’s active obedience is imputed to us. Rather surprisingly, Peter tells Cornelius and his family that, “In every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Since it is fairly certain that these are summaries of the sermons the apostles preached, it may be that Luke failed to understand the importance of justification by faith alone to the apostolic kerygma and left those portions out of the Acts accounts.
Anyone familiar with Reformed Protestantism knows the epistles of the Apostle Paul, particularly Romans and Galatians, are the locus classicus of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, a standard maxim of Reformed exegesis is that the Gospels contain the story of Jesus, but Paul provides the interpretation of Jesus and his message. Though the idea of justification by faith apart from works of the Law holds a key place in Galatians and Romans, the concept is rare and often absent from the rest of his epistles. The issue is further complicated by the conclusion of many Protestant scholars of the past 40 years (though the idea is not new to scholars in other traditions) that Paul is referring to circumcision, Sabbath observance, and other marks of Judaism, not righteous living, when he speaks of “works of the Law.” This reading is buttressed by the observation that justification invariably appears in passages concerned with the Jew/Gentile conflict in the early church. Scholars have also suggested that the Greek construction underlying the English phrase “by faith in Jesus Christ” is better translated “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” If this is the case, then the “gospel” on which Reformed Christianity stands may be the product of a mistranslation in conjunction with a misinterpretation.
In the course of my studies it came as a bit of a jolt to realize that Paul never uses the phrase “justified by faith alone,” but the peculiarity of the Reformed emphasis becomes even more pronounced in light of the fact that the only instance of the phrase in the entire New Testament is a denial of it. After explaining that a passive faith cannot save, James presents Abraham and Rahab as examples of true faith and then concludes, “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) And James’ question earlier in the passage, “Can his faith save him?” (2:14) makes it clear that the discussion of faith and works is concerned with the nature of saving faith, something that James thinks is neither passive nor distinct from virtuous action.
Finally, if the Judgment Day scenario encapsulated in the debate resolution above and propounded by Reformed theologians is true, then surely we can expect at least one passage on the last judgment to affirm it. But again, without exception every reference to that day describes a judgment based on what people have done or “works” (Matthew 25:31ff; John 5:29; 2 Corinthians 5:9 – 10; Revelation 20:11 – 15; et. al). How can a tradition that makes so much of the authority and perspicuity of Scripture assert so vociferously that at the heart of the gospel stands a concept so exegetically insubstantial?
What am I missing?