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Protestants in Crisis over Justification by Faith

Chapter 4  — The Need for a Historical Framework

The Need for a Correct Biblical Framework

The centrality of justification by faith and its forensic character is the raison d'etre of the Lutheran Reformation. It is under massive attack today. Prominent Lutheran scholars are leading this assault on the Reformation faith. But that is not the only feature of the current crisis among Lutherans. Many of those trying to defend the old faith are not convincing. They appear to be losing ground in the struggle. They are repeating many of the old arguments (such as the meaning of words), but their theological framework is too abstract and rationalistic. This plays into the hands of those who advocate a theology of dynamic experience as an alternative to "dry old orthodoxy."

The abstract scholastic dogmatics of the old Protestant orthodoxy is not adequate for the present crisis. What is needed is a theology with a truly biblical framework. The apostles preached the gospel of Christ out of the Old Testament background. Yet there has always been a tendency in the church to cut the Christian message loose from its Old Testament roots.

When this happens, the Christian message is placed in either a rationalistic or a mystical framework and is consequently distorted. What is needed is a return to biblical faith, which is not just Christian but Judeo-Christian. Biblical faith is historical, covenantal and eschatological.

The want of a theology which has a historical, covenantal and eschatological framework is the real issue behind the issues in the current justification-by-faith debate.

The Historical Framework

The first thing that must be said about biblical faith is that it is historical faith. "The uniqueness—the 'scandal'—of biblical faith is revealed in its radically historical character."1

The Bible has a historical framework. Man is essentially a historical being.

Biblical faith understands human existence and human destiny in irreducibly historical terms. If the question is asked, what is the real reality of man?—what is it the actualization of which constitutes the fullness of his being?—the heathen (turned philosopher) would say nature; the Greek metaphysician and the Oriental mystic would say that which is timeless and eternal to him; but the biblical thinker would say his history. History is the very stuff out of which human being is made: human existence is potential or implicit history; history is explicit or actualized existence. And it is not very different on the corporate level. In attempting to explain to someone who really does not know what it means to be an American, it would be futile to try to contrive some conceptual definition of "American-ness." Would it not prove more appropriate to tell the story of America and rely upon that story to communicate the fullness of what it means to be an American? "The human person and man's society," Reinhold Niebuhr has profoundly observed, "are by nature historical. . . [and] the ultimate truth about life must be mediated historically (emphasis added) . . .

But he who understands the reality of human being in biblical terms will find no difficulty in understanding that the ultimate truth about human life and destiny, about man's plight and man's hope alike, is truly and inexpugnably historical, and can be expressed in no other way. (Hence the Bible is composed so largely of stories, recitals, histories.) The structure of faith is a historical structure, because being, living, and acting are, in the biblical conviction, radically historical in character.2

This means that true preaching about the sinner's justification before God is not an abstract theory of imputed righteousness which sounds too much like salvation by celestial bookkeeping. Nor is it explaining the technique of moral transformation. It is the preaching of something historical. Alan Richardson has expressed this point beautifully:

Biblical faith, however, is not at all concerned with asking in what salvation consists or in recommending techniques, whether mystical or ethical, by which salvation may be attained. It is concerned rather with the proclamation of the fact of salvation, and thus it differs from all "religion" by being kerygmatic in character. The Bible is concerned with the fact that God actually has in concrete historical fact saved his people from destruction.3

The principle is the same in both Testaments. In the Old Testament God's saving act took place in the Exodus-Sinai event, which becomes the type of God's great saving act in the death resurrection event. Biblical preaching, however, is not preaching about some dead history which is past and gone. Though the event may have happened years or even centuries ago, it lives on as it is continually rehearsed by Word and sacraments.

For the Old Testament believer the Exodus was a history that was part of his existence. He may have lived long after the Exodus took place. But as the event was rehearsed by holy days, feast days and the story of the fathers, he was caught up in that history. He identified with it in such a way that it became his history. Therefore the Exodus was something which really happened to him as a member of the people for whom the redemption was wrought. When he made his confession of faith, he told the story of the Exodus using the first person, as if he had actually crossed the Red Sea with Moses. "'My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt. . . and the Lord heard our voice [note the first person pronoun] and saw our misery, toil and oppression. . . . So the Lord brought us out of Egypt'"(see Deut. 26:2-10).

So it is with the New Testament believer. In the gospel and the sacraments, the holy history of Jesus Christ is recited, rehearsed and represented. This is more than a memorial of a past event which is dead and gone. In the proclamation of the event in the power of the Spirit, the past is rendered present (Rom. 1:16, 17). The believer is caught up in this holy history—he identifies with it, participates in it, is baptized or incorporated into it. Just as the Old Testament believer embraced the Exodus as his own personal history, so the New Testament believer embraces the holy history of Christ as his own personal history. And like the Old Testament believer, he makes his confession of faith by speaking of this history in the first person. "I have been crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20). "Our old self was crucified with Him" (Rom. 6:6). Or as Luther said, "Christ died. I too. He rose from the dead. I too. "Let us now consider what light this historical faith throws on some of the disputes about justification:

Since the believing sinner is justified by the holy history of Christ and by that alone, justification must be forensic.

2. Justification is central in Christian teaching since it is wholly concerned with what is central—namely, the holy history of Christ. On the other hand, the presentation of an abstract theory of justification not vitally grounded in Christology will not be regarded as central.

3. If God justifies on the basis of this new history of Christ which is pleasing to Him, then forensic justification is no legal fiction. It is not a matter of God waving a wand over the sinner, declaring him righteous when he possesses no righteousness at all. The believer possesses righteousness good enough and big enough to stand before the tribunal of God. He is identified with the holy history of Christ. It has become his own history. This is no make-believe. This history is real. The believer stands with a good record. It justifies him before God.

Proponents of forensic justification have sometimes given occasion for the Reformation faith to be impugned because they have separated justification from history so that the imputation of righteousness sounds almost like an abstraction. This has happened because soteriology has not been seen in its vital relationship to Christology.

Osiander said that forensic justification makes God appear to be a liar because He calls a man righteous when he is not righteous at all. Osiander was not wrong when he said that God must make the sinner righteous before He can declare him righteous. But the believing sinner has already been made righteous in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). Why should not the righteous Judge justify the man who stands before Him with the holy history of Christ?

Furthermore, when Christ identified Himself with our history, was He not cursed for our sake? (Gal. 3:12,13). Surely we are not going to say that His condemnation was based on what He was in Himself! So why should not God justify those who are identified with Christ's history? This justification is no more "analytical" than Christ's condemnation was analytical. The substitutionary atonement of Christ and justification by a forensic righteousness are merely two sides to one great truth.

Let us also look at Newman's argument in the light of historical faith. He used the analogy of creation to prove that God makes what He declares ("'Let there be light,' and there was light"). By doing this, Newman made God's creative act depend on justification. But God's new creation took place in His redemptive act in the holy history of Christ. The faith which justifies does not bring the new creation into existence; it confesses its existence. The conception, birth, sinless life and resurrection of Jesus from the dead were the recapitulation of Genesis 1 and the fulfillment of those Old Testament prophecies which spoke of God making all things new. The justification of the sinner springs from this creative act of God and not the other way around, as Newman and the proponents of "effective" justification contend.

Furthermore, is it correct to take the analogy of creation ("'Let there be light,' and there was light") and apply it to the matter of justification? Justification is an indicative verdict, not an imperative command, so the creation analogy is inappropriate. A better analogy would be God's verdict, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." This declaration was not made in order to make Christ pleasing to God but because He was pleasing to God. So it is with the believer. He is declared righteous before God's judgment seat because He has been made righteous in the holy history of Jesus Christ.

4. One of the most serious criticisms raised against forensic justification is that it leaves the sinner without moral renewal and therefore has antinomian tendencies. A doctrine of justification presented in the rationalistic framework which has characterized too much of the old Protestant orthodoxy cannot adequately meet this charge. It may correctly say that justification is distinguished from regeneration but is never separate. However, the critics are always suspicious that the link between justification and the new birth is too artificial—as if ethical renewal had to be attached to justification like an afterthought. Certainly the endless discussions on the ordo salutis in seventeenth-century Protestant scholasticism were too abstract and artificial.

However, when justification is preached in the framework of history, it appears in vital and inseparable relationship to the new birth. We have seen how the sinner is justified by participating in the holy history of Christ. The same inclusion into Christ's history also means that the sinner is born again.

A person does not become born again by rummaging around in his psyche. The new birth is not preoccupation with one's spiritual navel. Man is a historical being. I am the story of my life. My history determines who I am and what my destiny shall be. The only way I can become a new man is to have a new history.

In His discourse on the new birth, Jesus directed Nicodemus' attention to the first Exodus under Moses (John 3:14). Nicodemus knew very well that it was the Exodus event which gave birth to the nation of Israel. But the prophets had also spoken of a new exodus under a new Moses at the end of the age. In this new redemptive act God would make all things new. There would be a new covenant with a new Israel. Nicodemus was not altogether ignorant of these things. The book of John presents Jesus as that new Moses of the new exodus. The imagery of the Exodus appears everywhere in the Gospel of John. Jesus tells Nicodemus—this representative of Israel—that his identification with the history of old Israel will not entitle him to enter the kingdom of the new age now being inaugurated. He must now look to the Son of Man and identify himself with the Son of Man's new redemptive history (John 3:14, 15). Just as the first Exodus gave birth to the nation of Israel, so the new exodus at Calvary would give birth to the new Israel.

What we identify with historically has the most profound effect on our lives. For instance, in order to become an American in the deepest sense, I would need to know the story of the birth of this great nation and then to identify myself with that history so that it became part of my existence. I would thereby become caught up in the spirit of America. Its history would then govern the way I think and act. So it is when the Spirit of Christ comes to me clothed in the gospel of Christ. The Spirit incorporates me into the holy history of Christ. This brings about a change which is far more profound than a change of earthly citizenship and political philosophy. It means that my whole life has a new center. The holy history of Jesus Christ determines my entire existence—the way I think about everything as well as the way I act. "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

Incorporation into Christ's new history will therefore give me both a new standing (Justification) and a new state (new birth). My new history changes God's estimate of me and my estimate of God. Thus, the justification which is grounded in history is inseparable from the new birth, which is grounded in the same history. There is really no point to the artificial ordo salutis of Protestant scholasticism. If we say that justification comes first, it is not a temporal order but only a theological order. How I stand in God's sight must always be given first consideration.

Moreover, the new birth is the sinner's apprehension of forensic justification. To look away to a righteousness found wholly in Another and in what Another has done, to stake one's all upon the history of Another, is the negation of human pride and self-centeredness. To exercise saving faith is surely an essential element of the new birth. Thus, John simply says, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God" (1 John 5:1). True to the Hebraic rather than the Grecian way of thinking, the Bible describes the new-birth existence more by what it does than by what it is in itself. And true to Hebraic thinking, the biblical content of the new-birth doctrine is historical rather than rationalistic or existential.

Crown of Thorns



1 Will Herberg, Faith Enacted As History: Essays in Biblical Theology Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), p.32.

2 Ibid., pp. 35-6.

3 Alan Richardson, art. "Salvation, Savior," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick and Keith Crim, 5 vols. (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:168.