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).