Monday, October 06, 2008

Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine

Below is my all-too-brief review of J.V. Fesko's latest book on justification. I posted it on my goodreads site and they have a character limit.


Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine

by J.V. Fesko

Paperback: 461 pages

Publisher: P & R Publishing (August 15, 2008)

Reviewed by Paul Manata

Here’s a book that deserves to be read, re-read, and referred back to often. Unlike his previous book (What Is Justification by Faith Alone?) that came out earlier this year, J.V. Fesko’s Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, is massive in comparison, weighing in at 461 pages. The main body is made up of and introduction, 15 chapters, and a conclusion. Each chapter title (except for one) begins with the word “Justification” and is followed various predicates. The issues Fesko touches on are wide-ranging. The breakdown looks like this:


1. … in Church History
2. … and Prolegomena
3. The Structure of Redemptive History
4. … and the Covenant of Works
5. … and the Work of Christ
6. … in Its Historical Context
7. … by Faith Alone
8. … and the New Perspective on Paul
9. … and Imputation
10. … and Union with Christ
11. … and Sanctification
12. … and Final Judgment
13. … and the Church
14. … and the Roman Catholic Church
15. … and the Eastern orthodox Church


Does that whet your theological appetite?

This isn’t some milky introductory work either, there’s real meat Fesko serves up. Fesko pulls from all sorts of corners, profiting from all aspects of theological loci - biblical, systematic, exegetical, historical etc., in explaining and defending the classical, Reformed (Pauline!) doctrine of justification by faith alone. The issues discussed in the chapters are so wide-ranging, the arguments so weighty, and his interlocutors so many, a detailed, even semi-detailed, review doesn’t seem feasible on goodreads character limits. So below I’ll offer the basic resources he pulls from to argue for and defend the doctrine of justification, and then I’ll briefly discuss his interlocutors.

Fesko makes much of the two-age eschatological construct, as seen especially in the writings of Paul. This stems from his insistence that one not divorce the ordo salutis from the historia salutis. That is, we need to look not only at the application of justification to the individual and how it relates to the other elements of redemption, but we need to look at what time it is in redemptive history too.

Eschatology isn’t just dealing with the final few days of history and the time after Jesus' return. We live in “the last days” now, says Paul. So Jesus, the last Adam, has inaugurated the eschaton. In his death and resurrection, the verdict of the final judgment has been brought foreword in history, declared in the present. Thus those who are united to Christ have already been judged and found innocent. They have been given his righteousness. The have been raised “according to the inner man” and now only wait the raising of the “outer man” by means of the bodily resurrection which is simply the visible manifestation of what is true of those who have placed their faith in Christ. (Fesko makes use of and profits from the view that the general resurrection, the Parousia, and the final judgment are not separate events but one single event.) By faith alone we are propelled into the indefectible state of the last Adam. We are not returned to “protology;” to the state Adam was in while in the Garden-temple (see book for an excellent discussion on Adam, the Garden-temple (relying ob Beale's excellent work here), and the covenant of works).

So we who place our faith in Christ are part of the eschatological Adamic humanity. We are the bride of Christ, the eschatological Eve. This is had by faith alone. But this does not lead to antinomianism, especially if one takes note of “what time it is,” i.e., the historia salutis. In “the last days” God, by His Spirit, causes his people to walk in his ways. He writes his law on their heart. Thus antinomianism forgets our place in redemptive history. Works are thus necessary for salvation in the sense that they are the inevitable fruit of our faith, justification cannot be divorced from the work of last Adam, and hence the inauguration of the eschaton whereby God’s justified people will have his law writ large on their heart. But nomianism is avoided too since the ground of justification is extra nos, the active and passive obedience of Christ out side us, and the sole instrument of justification is faith alone. Faith trusts and rests in Christ. It is by faith alone that we are saved, but that faith is never alone in that it is accompanied by the works promised to be a part of the eschatological age brought about by the last Adam.

Emphasizing the historia with the ordo doesn’t mean we ignore the ordo. This helps us in specifying the ground and nature of justification and all other aspects of our redemption. The ordo is needed to distinguish works from our justification. It helps us reflect the logical priorities in our redemption as set forth in Scripture. Paul doesn’t bring union with Christ to Galatia to confront the Judaizers with, he brings justification. Good works must logically come after justification. Without the ordo, the gospel is lost.

These are some of the categories and arguments Fesko invokes to explain and defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He invokes imputation, law/Gospel hermeneutic, Covenant of Works, Redemptive history, and biblical, systematic, and exegetical theology with great profit and defends them against myriad attacks. He looks at contemporary literature on Second-Temple Judaism. He even discusses, though somewhat briefly, the Greek philosophical presuppositions of Roman Catholic understandings of salvation and anthropology, benefiting from some trenchant critiques of RCC/Thomistic views of our knowledge of God, faith and reason, and anthropology by Cornelius Van Til.

When he turns to criticisms and critics of the classical Reformed doctrine of justification, Fesko deals with almost every challenge, and almost every challenger to the Reformed doctrine of justification. As you should expect, he spends the majority of his efforts dealing with those of the New Perspective on Paul, NPP. He ably explains the position of many of the top advocates of the NPP, and then subjects them all to blistering critiques, spending most of his time on N.T. Wright. He really shows that, for all their erudition, advocates of NPP are rather ignorant of the Reformers they attack, the divide between Protestantism and Rome, exegesis of relevant texts, and important systematic doctrines.

He interacts with ecumenicalist attempts at a feigned, forced, and alethically disrespectful “resolution” between Reformed and RCC explications of the doctrine of justification. In Jeremiahic style, Fesko shows that the eccuenicalists “dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace” (6:14). Basically, if you make things sloppy enough, anything looks like it could belong there.

Fesko interacts with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, showing that: (a) there is no unity to be had between their views and classical protestant ones on the issue of justification without such major concessions that the RC and EO churches would be unrecognizable, and (b) their views on the matter are such that “they preach another gospel” (yet Fesko allows that there is a church among the apostate institution of the RCC and EOC). He notes that all of these contra-protestant positions end up just not offering good news.

I’ll close this all-too-brief review with Fesko’s concluding remarks: “In the end, the doctrine of justification by faith alone turns on the question of whether sinful man will take shelter in the righteousness of Christ. It is the glorious exchange where man’s sin and guilt are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s active obedience is imputed to his people. Sola fide is indeed the main hinge on which all religion turns, the only foundation for our salvation. It is the article on which the church stands or falls” (413).


  1. Paul -- those are some pretty high marks. Forgive my ignorance? Who is Fesko? Thanks for this review.

  2. Thanks, Paul, for the review!

    Would you mind posting that on The book might get more attention if you do so.

  3. Saint -- he's already out there!

  4. John,

    I have included a hyper-link to Fesko's RTS page in his name above.


    Yes, I did post a copy of this over at Amazon too. Hopefully that gets it more att. I also notice that T-blog's Berny posted his review of Fesko's other book on Amazon.

  5. "He even discusses, though somewhat briefly, the Greek philosophical presuppositions of Roman Catholic understandings of salvation and anthropology, benefiting from some trenchant critiques of RCC/Thomistic views of our knowledge of God, faith and reason, and anthropology by Cornelius Van Til."

    I think this alone would be worth the price of the book.

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. (deleted previous comment for editing)

    You wrote, "Works are thus necessary for salvation in the sense that they are the inevitable fruit of our justification..."

    It seems to me that if works (W) are in some sense necessary for ultimate salvation (S), then works are, in the same sense, necessary for justification (J). The argument might be:

    Therefore, W>J.

    What am I misunderstanding? Thanks in advance.

  9. "It seems to me that if works (W) are in some sense necessary for ultimate salvation (S), then works are, in the same sense, necessary for justification (J)."


    In Protestant (i.e. Biblical) theology, one cannot be justified (i.e. a legal act: extra nos) without also being regenerated. God works not only a legal/judicial work outside of us, but also a change inside of us. Thus, if one does not have works, this is a sign that he was never justified since the two acts never happen one without the other even though they are totally seperate acts.

  10. Freed,

    I am actually having an email exchange on this right now. I changed my blog to reflect what I take to be more accurate, that faith is the fruit of faith (though locating it as the fruit of salvation broadly considered is another possible route).

    To appeal to all sides :-), I'll cite both Confessions

    WCF 16: 2. "These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith..."

    LBC 16:2. "These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith..."

    The "double gift" of justification and works comes from God. And I agree with you that justification does not cause sanctification.

    But, sanctification and justification are more closely related than regeneration, I think. Regeneration does change our natures so that we can respond to God in faith. But as Calvin says, "do we not see that the Lord freely justifies his own in order that he may at the same time restore them to true righteousness by sanctification of his Spirit?"

    I like Calvin's language on this when he spoke of the sun which "by its heat, quickens and fructifies the earth, by its beams brightens and illumines it. Here is a mutual and indivisible connection. Yet reason itself forbids us to transfer the peculiar qualities of the one to the other."

    And I don't have a problem saying that works necessarily follow from justification without saying that the declaration of righteousness *causes* the works. Calvin said, "We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance. (Tracts III.115-6.)"

    Same with Helm: "According to Calvin, then, justification is logically prior to sanctification. It makes sanctification possible, and also makes it necessary. Between the two there is a significant difference. So what kind of distinction is there between justification and sanctification if they are inseparable? A logical distinction, a distinction of thought, but yet a distinction of the utmost importance, for confounding the two is deadly. There is no time when a person is justified and not being sanctified. No time when a person is being sanctified and not already justified."

    And Helm as a little acronym too:

    "So in considering the logical relations between justification and sanctification as Calvin teaches them we may think of 'four points'.

    Justification is not sanctification, and is logically before sanctification
    Always sanctification when justification
    Whenever sanctification then justification
    Sanctification is not justification

    Thus giving us the acronym 'JAWS'. (Not as good as 'TULIP', I know.)"

    And it's in this sense that works are necessary for salvation. No good works stands as an evidence indicator of no justification.

    The author of Hebrews speaks of the apostates in ch. 6 as being of a totally different kind of soil than the saved. One field bears fruit while the other is stony. He doesn't say that the apostates *turned into* a stony soil, rather, they *always were*. Thus the fruit demonstrates or justifies (in James' sense) that we are of a different kind than the unregenerate.

    Works serve to vindicate who has been justified. They serve as fruit-to-fruit, evidence-indicators of the faith we place in Christ alone. The OT prophets promised that God would, after he washed and sprinkled us clean, pour his spirit out on his people in the last days and cause them to walk in his ways, he writes his law on our heart. God does the washing. We don't walk in his ways and then get washed. But without walking in his ways and saying this is necessary, we deny where we're at in redemptive history.

    You wrote:
    "It seems to me that if works (W) are in some sense necessary for ultimate salvation (S), then works are, in the same sense, necessary for justification (J)."

    But you left out the term fruit.

    You wrote:

    But this is vague. If this is meant to convey causation or grounding, then it is a false premise and you have an unsound argument.

    Thus your confusion comes from not taking into account the "in a sense" of it all.

  11. edit: "[works are] the fruit of faith.

  12. To put it another way, without taking into account the distinctions made in the post, then your:


    Could be read as saying that apples cause apple trees to grow.

  13. Or, as one of my email correspondents just out it:

    "If Y and Z are both the fruit of X, it doesn't follow in the slightest that Y comes about by means of Z. Thus, if justification and good works are both the fruit of saving faith, it doesn't follow at all that justification comes about by good works."

  14. In another thread on Fesko’s book, Paul wrote:

    >> On the early Church Fathers (100-600): He agrees with Berkof that the early church fathers are indefinite, incomplete, and sometimes self-contradictory and erroneous wrt their understanding of justification. But he notes that one can find a number of significant statements that show they had a basic understanding of justification by faith. He finds a clear affirmation of the centrality of faith. And he sees a major strand of justification where the meaning is forensic, non-imputation of sin, and imputation of righteousness. He also comments that to criticize them for not using Reformation language is problematic as a critique.>>

    “imputation of righteousness” in the “the early Church Fathers (100-600)”?

    I sincerely believe Fesko needs to interact a bit more with recent patristic scholars—e.g., McGrath (Iustitia Dei), Lane (Justification by Faith), and Heckel (ONLINE ESSAY).

    This THREAD may also be useful.

    Grace and peace,


  15. David,

    I closed that thread down for a reason. By-passing that won't get you far.

    You are (a) taking what I said to an email correspondent who specifically asked me to give a *brief* synopsis of what Fesko said of that era and whether he cited original sources, and (b) ignorant because you took my brief synopsis and ran with it without reading Fesko. If you had bothered to inform yourself by reading the book you'd note that Fesko cites from McGrath and Lane quite frequently. And since he sticks to scholarly sources I'm sorry to report he doesn't "interact" with online blogs.

    "“imputation of righteousness” in the “the early Church Fathers (100-600)”?"

    Yeah. Why the ? I see you didn't "interact a bit" with Needam's Justification in the Early Church Fathers.

    Anyway, my comments to Oduck apply to you as well. I'm sure you can complain all day about that section and how he should have spent more time on it, but that wasn't THE PURPOSE of the book.

    Since that thread was closed down because Oduck doesn't have the self-control or moral integrity to honor our requests, then further comments from you *on this issue* will be deleted.

    I require commenters to put in a little thought before posting a comment so as to not waste other's time.