Remembering the Protestant Reformation Means Cleaning House

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation there appears to be a defection from some of its teachings, especially with justification by faith (sola fide).

According to the witness of Scripture (spanning the two economies of redemption, the old and the new), the benefit of Christ’s atoning death…accrues to all regenerated saints (namely, the elect of God) as a forensic transaction. It is by means of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, received through the sole instrumentality of saving faith exercised by the believer, that sinners are constituted (not made) righteous in Christ. Justification by faith, in contrast to justification by works (or more exactly, approbation/confirmation in original righteousness), is grounded wholly upon the redemptive work of Christ, the Second Adam.

 

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation there is widespread, growing defection from the historic teachings of the Reformation, and that is to be expected. Wherever truth is expounded, there inevitably will be attacks to undermine or refute biblical truth. Nowhere is this more evident than with respect to the doctrine of justification by faith (sola fide).

According to the witness of Scripture (spanning the two economies of redemption, the old and the new), the benefit of Christ’s atoning death–whether viewed from the perspective of the Mosaic covenant (what is called “the Law”) or from the perspective of the new covenant (what is called “the Gospel”)–accrues to all regenerated saints (namely, the elect of God) as a forensic transaction. It is by means of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, received through the sole instrumentality of saving faith exercised by the believer, that sinners are constituted (not made) righteous in Christ. Justification by faith, in contrast to justification by works (or more exactly, approbation/confirmation in original righteousness), is grounded wholly upon the redemptive work of Christ, the Second Adam. At the outset of human history justification by works, had that been obtained by the First Adam (for the benefit of himself and all humanity), would have been a matter of “meritorious” accomplishment–meritorious in terms of the original Covenant of Works established by God with humankind. And nowhere is this principle of works, antithetical to the principle of (saving) grace, more apparent than in the temporal sphere of the Mosaic economy (life in the land of Canaan). Among modern-day opponents of the doctrine of “Republication” there is disdain–to one degree or another–for the works-inheritance principle, the principle that stands in contrast to the grace-inheritance principle denoting salvation by grace through faith alone (apart from the good works of those regenerated in Christ).

The second of two principles foundational to the theology of the Protestant reformers is the Scripture principle, indicating that Scripture is uniquely authoritative as the infallible Word of God. Additionally, Scripture is self-interpreting. This doctrine has fallen upon hard times, even in reputedly “orthodox” Reformed seminaries and churches today. Readers are encouraged to read the fifth book of mine published by Wipf and Stock, what has turned out to be a series of five books on the topic of Reformed covenant theology. The title of the latest writing is Reforming the Christian Faith (October 2017).

John Piper and Tom Schreiner, along with Dick Gaffin and Greg Beale of Westminster Seminary, have propagated an erroneous, heterodox interpretation of justification/final judgement by faith and good works. These interpreters contend that the traditional view (justification sola fide) gives short shrift to the necessity of good works. Both sides in this contentious dispute agree that the believer’s good works are necessary. The question is: Necessary in what respect with regard to our righteous standing before God? For those who have been regenerated by the Spirit of Christ and empowered to do good works, these works are pleasing to God (unlike the “good works” of the unregenerate). But these works of obedience rendered by believers do not play any role in the procurement of our righteous standing. It is through the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness–received by faith alone–that we are constituted righteousness. And having been constituted righteous we are enabled to offer the sacrifice of obedience that is well-pleasing to God. Final judgment is according to works, but not on the ground of works. The aberrant view insists that our justification/vindication (which includes God’s final judgment upon believers) is a matter of faith and good works.

Most proponents of the new teaching follow Karl Barth in his rejection of the classic Protestant-Reformed contrast between law and grace, as well as a repudiation of the biblical teaching on meritorious reward (with respect to the obedience required of the First Adam and, in many instances, with respect to the obedience of the Second Adam in the accomplishment of redemption for God’s elect). See my published writings for analysis and critique of each of these four representative spokesmen, in the context of the broader theological arena. Today the Reformed Church is indeed in a perilous state. May God grant illumination, wisdom, and discernment–rare commodities among contemporary evangelical-Reformed theologians and leaders in the church and the academy.

Dr. Mark W. Karlberg lives in Warminster, PA, and is an author and teacher in the Philadelphia area. He also serves on the staff of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Havertown, Penn., as a minister of worship and music. He is the author of Reforming the Christian Faith.

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