Thursday, October 15, 2015

Is faith a condition of justification?

The debate over Piper's foreword to Schreiner's monograph of justification has reignited:

Justification is simply the forgiveness of sins (negative removal of guilt) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (positive reckoning as righteous). 

That's an accurate, compact definition.

Entering into a right relationship with God is not part of it. Entering into a right relationship with God is a consequence of being forgiven and reckoned as righteous. In traditional terminology, we would speak of this right relationship as our adoption as God’s children and reconciliation with God (or peace with God). Justification is a purely forensic verdict in which we are freed from guilt and are reckoned as righteous before God. 

Up to a point, that's true. That's God's side of the transaction.

However, justification is, in part, a result of a human mental act: justifying faith. So justification is a consequence of divine and human acts alike. Hence, there's a theologically accurate sense in which a sinner can enter into a right relationship with God (Piper's colloquial synonym for justification) by exercising faith in Christ. Justifying faith is a part of it. A human part of it.

Of course, from a Reformed standpoint, faith is, itself, a result of monergistic regeneration. So it's not an independent human contribution to the transaction. 

The second confusing terminology is his use of the word “conditions.” He wants to say that faith is the sole condition of entering into a right relationship with God. But if we replace “entering into a right relationship with God” with “being justified,” then it is not true that faith is the sole condition, since faith is related to justification not as a condition but as a means. Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology or in the Reformed confessions.

Evidently, "condition" evokes certain connotations for Lee. One problem is a failure to define the term.

"Condition" is a standard term in philosophical usage. As I define it, a condition involves a dependence relation. Take a necessary condition: a sinner is justified if and only if he exercises justifying faith. Faith is an antecedent condition that must be met for justification to obtain. 

Put another way, if A is the case, then B is the case. If justifying faith obtains, then justification obtains. 

Conversely, unless justifying faith obtains, justification will not obtain. 

Lee says faith is a "means" rather than a "condition." But that's a false dichotomy. If faith is a necessary means to an end (=justification), then that's equivalent to a necessary condition. If the end cannot obtain apart from that particular means, then it's a necessary means–which is equivalent a necessary condition. 

Faith is not the ground of justification, but the means by which we are justified…

Which suggests that for Lee, "condition" denotes "a ground." But Piper said "condition," not "ground." Moreover, although a ground might be a condition, it doesn't follow that a condition is a ground. Sometimes they overlap, but "condition" is a broader concept, a more general category, than a "ground" 

Faith is a purely passive and receptive instrument. 

Hovering in the background of that nomenclature is the conflict with Rome. The traditional jargon is fairly opaque unless you contrast it with the opposing viewpoint. One objective is to preclude the notion that faith is meritorious. Preclude the notion that faith merits justification. Without that background, the significance of the terminology is obscured. 

In addition, Catholicism has a different concept of justification. Infused righteousness rather than imputed righteousness. 

Although these crucial distinctions, and it's important to educate people on what they mean, Piper's paragraph is consistent with all that. 

It's also a mistake to think we must repeat traditional formulations. There's nothing wrong with introducing newer words to denote older concepts. For one thing, we sometimes need to update our language to communicate to the current generation. Language changes.

In addition, the newer terminology may, in fact, be an improvement over the older terminology. Using philosophical jargon for theological concepts can lend greater precision to the formulation. 

Faith is an open hand that receives the gift…receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith.

"Resting…the open hand" is picturesque imaginary. Dear to people who were raised on that. Nothing wrong with that. But metaphorical language is loose and illustrative. So I don't see why that's superior to a technical term like "condition." 

To say the justified "rest" in the righteousness of Christ is not self-explanatory. That's something you have to unpack. So I don't see how that's an improvement over faith as a necessary condition for justification.

It's beneficial to use both kinds of language. Philosophical jargon is more precise while figurative terminology can enable to the reader to "visualize" the concept. They work best in combination.

Piper goes on to say, “There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.” 
This is terribly confusing. If we have been justified by faith, we are righteous in God’s sight and therefore entitled to heaven. Christ’s righteousness is sufficient. We do not need to meet any other conditions for attaining heaven. If we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, then we are legally righteous in the eyes of God and qualified to attain heaven.

Actually, I think Lee's objection is confused. In Calvinism, the various conditions of salvation are coordinated: all and only the elect are redeemed, regenerated, justified, adopted, sanctified, glorified, &c. So it's true that if anyone condition obtains, all the other conditions will obtain.

If you were justified, then that ensures your salvation. But the same could be said with respect to the other conditions. If you were regenerated, that ensures your salvation. If you are redeemed, that ensures your salvation. If you were elected, that ensures your salvation. 

Likewise, if you were justified, that ensures that you were regenerated. If you were regenerated, that ensures that you will be justified. And so on. Each condition entails salvation. Each condition entails every other condition. 

But by the same token, we do not attain heaven apart from the other conditions. Each and every condition must be met to attain heaven.

That doesn't mean we do it on our own steam. This is all the result of saving grace. But that's the point: salvation by grace is a package deal. All or nothing.

For instance, you can't be justified unless Christ died for you. The atonement is a necessary condition of justification. Justification is grounded in the merit of Christ's sacrificial death. Penal substitution.

I suspect that Piper is shadowboxing with antinomianism. 

In this sense, it is true to say that no one who enters heaven will be devoid of good works and evangelical obedience. But these things have no role to play as means or conditions of attaining heaven. They are the fruit and evidence of saving faith. We do not attain heaven by means of or on the condition of producing the fruit of faith. 

Once again, the problem here is that Lee is working with an undefined notion of "condition." That word triggers certain connotations for him.  He doesn't indicate where he derives his operating definition.  

Sanctification is a condition of attaining heaven. A necessary condition. 

We are saved by the work of the Spirit (in regeneration and sanctification) as well as the work of the Father (in election and justification) and the Son (in redemption). 

Is justification a sufficient condition to "attain heaven"? Sufficient insofar as justification entails the satisfaction of the other conditions. But insufficient in itself


  1. Did you read Mark Jones's piece on this? He deals with Lee's faulty useage of never in the statement "Faith has never been viewed as a condition of justification in Reformed theology or in the Reformed confessions."

    1. Yes, that was a good article.

  2. Does that not Rome say that faith is a gift in initial justification and has no merit.

    1. It dies the death of a thousand qualifications. To begin with, in Catholic theology the grace of faith is resistible.

      In addition: "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life" (CCC 2010).

      It's a combination of divine grace, man's libertarian freedom to accept or reject it, and the accumulation of human merit.

    2. Vincent,
      The gifts (infusion of faith, hope, and charity) given in initial justification are unmerited - they are not given based on previous merits but rather to be a source of merit. Afterwards, faith formed in charity does merit. See Aquinas' discussion - and the overview at

  3. That paragraph is referring to progressive justification. I have in mind the justification that happens in baptism. Have you heard of Lagrange, he is an understanding of free will that is similar to the Reformed position.

    1. I'm aware of the distinction. One of the problems with Catholic justification is the way it's subdivided into parts, where one is meritorious but the other is not.

      And, of course, there's the merging of justification with sanctification, which is another source of endless confusion.

      The point, though, is that sola gratia can't be partial. If human merit or libertarian freewill play a part, then it's not salvation by grace *alone*.