Godfrey on Shepherd In 1978

"Justification is an act of God by which He forgives sinners acquitting them of their guilt, accounts and accepts them as righteous, and bestows upon them the title to eternal life."

This seems to me a strangely and fundamentally defective statement of the doctrine of justification, in that three elements that are always to be found in the confessional standards’ statements about justification are not to be found there. First, there is no reference to our Lord, or a clear statement that it is His righteousness that is the ground of our forgiveness. Secondly, there is no clear statement that the righteousness of Christ, which is the ground of our justification, is His imputed righteousness. And thirdly, there is no statement that that righteousness is received by faith.

 

Editor’s Preface

During the controversy at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), not only did faculty devote meetings to the highly objectionable views of Norman Shepherd, but they also wrote articles for the seminary’s theological journal and even used class lectures to counter arguments from the other side. One such instance was a lecture that W. Robert Godfrey gave on December 4, 1978 in his course on the Reformation. A high tech student—all it took then for technical prowess was a tape recorder—recorded the lecture and later transcribed Godfrey’s remarks. We are grateful to that student, Ken Myers, and to Professor Godfrey for granting us permission to reprint the substance of that lecture.

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Now, I want to pause at that point and do something different… One of the concerns in studying the Reformation, particularly at the beginning but right through the study of the Reformation, is a concern with the doctrine of justification. And as you know, the doctrine of justification has been a matter of some concern around here for some time. And, as you all probably also know, the doctrine of justification is to be debated here in an open session of the Presbytery of Philadelphia of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church on December 16. I’m not a member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and probably will not take active part in that discussion, but on learning that some thirty-four theses on justification had been distributed to the student body, and having been asked questions by several students about that, it seemed to me that it might be of value for me to comment and give some of my thoughts on those thirty-four theses at this point…

I obviously don’t have time to comment on all of the theses, but I do want to comment on a few in particular. Thesis 3 offers what seems to be a kind of working definition of justification at the beginning, where it says:

Justification is an act of God by which He forgives sinners acquitting them of their guilt, accounts and accepts them as righteous, and bestows upon them the title to eternal life.

This seems to me a strangely and fundamentally defective statement of the doctrine of justification, in that three elements that are always to be found in the confessional standards’ statements about justification are not to be found there. First, there is no reference to our Lord, or a clear statement that it is His righteousness that is the ground of our forgiveness. Secondly, there is no clear statement that the righteousness of Christ, which is the ground of our justification, is His imputed righteousness. And thirdly, there is no statement that that righteousness is received by faith.

Now it seems to me that it is not insignificant that these matters are missing here. The notion of imputation does not seem to function significantly in the theses generally. There is only one reference to imputation, that in thesis 26, where the concept is used to oppose Roman Catholicism. In the causative formulation of the doctrine in the theses, imputation does not seem to function centrally. We will return to the question of how centrally the notion of faith functions as we go along, but I think it is important that in all of the confessional statements, the fact that we are justified by faith is always important.

Thesis 4 offers two kinds of justification: an initial justification in the life of the believer, and a justification “with reference to God’s open acquittal and acceptance of’ the believer at the final judgment.” Now, it is true that occasionally within the Scripture the word we normally translate “justify” is used in reference to the final judgment. But in terms of theological discussion of the locus of justification, as it is expressed, for example, particularly in the confessional standards, justification is never used in reference to the final judgment. It seems to me that when we are talking in terms of theology, in terms of systematic theology, it is inappropriate to talk about us “going to be justified.” Whatever usefulness the distinction has in other circumstances, it seems to me profoundly inappropriate in reference to justification. We are already justified. But I would be willing to argue quite forcefully that it is not true that we are not yet justified. There awaits, it is true, the open acquittal before the judgment-seat of God. There awaits us the vindication of God’s saving purposes. And there awaits us our glorification. But it does not seem to me that our justification awaits us.

In thesis 5, the statement is made:

The ground of justification or the reason or cause why sinners are justified is in no sense to be found in themselves or in what they do, but is to be found wholly and exclusively in Jesus Christ and in his mediatorial accomplishment on their behalf.

This statement certainly sounds good, although again there is no declaration about imputation. But, if we absolutely identify ground with reason with cause, then we have no room left it seems to me for an instrumental cause, namely faith. It is true that faith is not the meritorious cause, nor is it the efficient cause, but it does seem to me that it is the instrumental cause. And in fact faith is to be found in those who are justified. And by eliminating the possibility of faith as an instrumental cause at this point, there is some conflict with the confessional standards.

Thesis 7 says:

In the order of the application of redemption in the case of an adult, justification is by faith, and the sinner must believe in order to be justified; however, to use the categories of antecedence or priority to describe the relation of faith to justification obscures the truth that the justifying verdict and the gift of faith are received together at the moment the sinner is united to Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Well, I don’t see how you can use language “the sinner must believe in order to be justified” without some notion, at least, of priority, if not antecedence. And one begins to get the feeling that language is beginning to cease to have any real communicating power. It seems to me that it has always been the Reformed point of view that there is at least a logical priority of faith to justification, even if there is no temporal priority. And that seems to me to be abundantly manifested in the confessional standards.

When we come to thesis 11:

Justifying faith is obedient faith, that is, “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), and therefore faith that yields obedience to the commands of Scripture.

If one means by that that the faith which justifies is also the faith that obeys, then there is certainly no problem here, and thesis 11 makes no link between obedient faith and justification. But, if one wants to say that in order to be justified, one must have faith that obeys, then it seems to me one is adopting a position similar to that which some Roman Catholics adopted in the Middle Ages and in the Sixteenth Century.

Theses 13 through 15 are to my mind particularly significant, in that I think that there is in these theses an explicit contradiction of the Confession. These theses discuss the relationship of faith and repentance. In the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, repentance as it is discussed then as a separate topic is always repentance unto life. And these theses are talking about that repentance, repentance unto life, which, as thesis 13 points out, includes not only “a grief for and hatred of sin, a turning unto God,” but also “a purposing and endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of his commandments.” Repentance unto life, then, includes endeavoring to walk with God in all ways of his commandments. And this kind of repentance that includes endeavoring to walk, in thesis 14 it is declared, “although not the ground of forgiveness, is nevertheless so necessary for all sinners, that there is no pardon without it.”

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