Saturday, March 11, 2006

Justification for now and forever


Justification is the Whole of Salvation
Filed under: Catholicity — Paul Owen @ 9:48 am

2. To be “accounted righteous” means simply that our sins are not held against us. All past sins are forgiven, and all future sins will be forgiven if we repent (Matt. 6:12; 1 John 1:9). As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it, when Christians fall into sin: “we pray for ourselves and others, that God of his free grace would, through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, apprehended and applied by faith, acquit us both from the guilt and punishment of sin, accept us in his Beloved; continue his favour and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness (Q. 194).

3. Thus it can be seen that justification is not a once for all reality, which requires no ongoing appropriation. It is an entering into a new relationship of familial love and forgiveness, which assures us of pardon, because of Christ, whenever we truly repent. Those who are on the outside of God’s family, and who do not know the justification of God, do not find God’s forgiveness, but only his judgment (Exod. 34:7). God forgives the sins of the justified, not the sins of the “guilty.” This is what Romans 8:1 means–not that our future sins could never be held against us whatever our conduct–but that God will not hold our sins against us if and (for the elect) when we come to him for continual pardon. Therein lies the difference between the once-saved-always-saved mentality of Evangelicalism, and the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the elect.


1.Some men are transparent to everyone except themselves. You can see Paul Owen incrementally, but steadily, easing himself out of the remnants of the Reformed faith.

He does this by attacking it piece-by-piece, both the doctrines and their prooftexts.

Like a ship at sea, he will replace every part to make the new ship conform to his Anglo-Catholicism.

And like a five-day weather forecast, Owen is predictably mistaken.

2.Not only is he wrong, but wrong-headed. He is wrong because his reasoning his wrong.

So, before we correct very latest in his long string of blunders, let’s examine the faulty process by which he went astray.

3.At issue here is the relationship between two teachings of Scripture: the finality of justification, on the one hand, and the repeatability of repentance and remission on the other.

4.One of Owen’s characteristic mistakes is to use one author to interpret another. So, in this instance, he uses Matthew and John to reinterpret Paul.

This is a methodological error. The proper way to do systematic theology is first to do exegetical theology, in which you interpret each bible writer on his own terms.

A given Bible writer has his own areas of interest, his own ways of expressing himself, his own categories, his own frame of reference, his own center of gravity, his own network of associations.

Matthew and John don’t have a doctrine of justification. That didn’t come up in the course of their ministry.

It did come up for Paul because of his ministry to the Gentiles, which, in turn, raises the question of how Jew and Gentile are related to the law of God.

Paul also had a mind that was well-adapted to abstract analysis. What is more, the epistolary genre is well-suited to explaining how things go together, whereas the gospel genre, as a form of historical narrative, generally shows by telling, and is less uniformly editorial.

5.Once you construe what each author means within the confines of his own flow of argument, then, and only then, are you in a position to systematize the relation between one author and another at a higher level of synthesis.

6.There are different ways of harmonizing the teaching of Scripture:

a) Reductive

You can harmonize by negation, by subtraction rather than addition, by making the synthesis less than the sum of the parts.

You can either do this by taking one relatum as the controlling factor, and relativizing away the other end of the relation.

Or you can blunt the force of each relatum. The former method is eliminative, the latter diminutive.

Owen favors a reductive strategy which is, at best, diminutive, and at worse, eliminative.

b) Dialectical

You can profess to leave both relata in a state of tension.

This sounds humble, as if you’re not forcing a harmonization, but leaving Scripture to speak for itself. You seem to reserve judgment.

But it is really prejudicial. You have rendered a preemptory judgment according to which the relation is apparently contradictory and impossible to reconcile without doing violence to the witness of Scripture.

Another problem with (b) is that since doctrine has a practical dimension, you will still end up with a working solution, in which you live out the truth of what you believe, and if you happen to believe that the truth is tugging your mind in opposing directions, while you remain unable, as a practical matter, to move in opposing directions, then you will, in effect, mentally affirm both doctrines, but operate with one at a time, or one all the time.

c) Synthetic

Here you draw certain distinctions which enable you to harmonize both doctrines without diminishing or minimizing either.

7.That said, back to our original question.

If Paul teaches the finality of justification, as a once-for-all-time event, then we must respect the integrity of Pauline teaching and not dilute it with extraneous considerations.

John is not the interpreter of Paul; Paul is not the interpreter of John.

So Paul’s doctrine is a given, a benchmark. You don’t move the benchmark. You leave it be.

8.In point of fact, the Bible never explicitly says how the finality of justification and the repeatability of repentance and remission are interrelated. So any solution is somewhat inferential.

9.However, the Bible also describes the nature of repentance and remission in such a way that there is no apparent tension to relieve.

10.This is illustrated in the life of David, regarding the Bathsheba affair. In Pss 32 and 51 we see the subjective effects of impenitence.

David sinned against man, and by sinning against man, he sinned against God. He is acutely aware of his sin, and he tries his best to cover it up. And like the proverbial boiling pot, putting a lid on sin only makes it roil underneath.

For David is guilty of sin. This doesn’t mean that his sin will be held against him at the day of Judgment. But he has sinned against God. Indeed, he’s living in sin. And this takes a psychological toll on his spiritual equilibrium.

It’s like a son who takes advantage of a father. The better the father, the worse it feels to wrong him and to abuse his loving-kindness.

Until we face up to our sin, acknowledge our sin, and confront the offended party, we will be guilt-ridden, and rightly so.

We can’t be in their presence with this hidden sin hanging around our neck. We can’t enjoy their company knowing that we have betrayed their trust, until we confess our sin and seek forgiveness.

11.Spiritual restoration is not a new justification. Were it not for the finality of justification, there would be no foundation for future forgiveness. It is only because we are already justified in Christ for all time that our justification in Christ is applicable each and every time we sin.

12.Contrition is also a mark of regeneration. The nominal believer is impenitent. He may feel sorry for the alienating effect of sin on his friends and family, but his remorse does not extend to upward.

Since he has no vital relationship with God, sin does nothing to affect his relationship with God. There is no sense of loss since there is nothing to lose.

But for a true believer, the confession of sin is a grateful recognition of he need for grace, and the availability of grace to meet him in his time of need.

Confession can be painful, but it can also be joyful, for it rejoices in the grace of God. Forgiving and thanksgiving go together. If Catholicism is a faith of flagellation, Calvinism is a faith of celebration.

13.Scripture also draws a distinction between retributive punishment and remedial punishment (Ps 89:30-33; 94:12; 119:67).

This is the objective aspect of impenitence, and we see this play out in the life of David as well. When David sinned, and persisted in sin, there were outward consequences. One son died in the womb while another son (Absalom) would one day commit treason. Because David sinned against the family, he would suffer in kind.

If you take a wrong turn, and you continue to go down the wrong road, it will take you that much longer to find your way back, and you may lose something along the way, something you cannot recover.

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