Justification by Faith and John Henry Newman
Some Concluding Reflections on Newman's Theology
Newman's greatest weakness was his failure to grasp the nature of the gospel at its most fundamental level. We can agree with him that an abstract theory of forensic justification is not the gospel. But neither is Newman's reduction of the gospel to a mystical internal experience. The alternative to dry Protestant scholasticism is not mystical internalism.
The gospel is the proclamation of a historical event. The framework of the gospel is neither rationalistic nor mystical, but historical. In a concrete event, God broke into history in the person of His Son. In one infinite awesome act of judgment and deliverance, Jesus Christ fulfilled all that the Old Testament had promised. He dealt with sins, defeated the enemy, destroyed death, brought in everlasting righteousness and reconciled the world to Himself. In the Christ event, God recapitulated Old Testament history. He rewrote the history of Adam and Israel. And in the place of man's history of failure, He gave him a new holy history. The new creation took place in Christ, for in His death and resurrection humanity was saved from sin, made righteous and glorified at God's right hand. That is the gospel.
We cannot talk correctly about justification, new birth, the Spirit, faith, sanctification or anything that applies to the individual until we have first settled that the gospel is the proclamation of the absolutely finished deed of redemption which has taken place in history altogether outside the individual's experience. When we talk about justification, new birth and sanctification, we are talking about the application and benefits of the work of Christ to the individual believer. In order to participate in and benefit from the saving event which took place in history, the sinner must be incorporated into this holy history of Christ-that is to say, he must become vitally identified with Christ in such a way that Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension all belong to him and become part of his existence. In this context it is proper to talk about hearing the gospel, faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. By these the sinner is incorporated into the new history and the new creation which has already taken place in Christ. And by this baptism of faith and of the Spirit, he becomes justified, born again and sanctified. All these are as inseparable as the fingers on a hand, but they are just as distinguishable.
This incorporation into Christ accomplishes the sinner's justification. Justification pertains to the way the sinner stands before the Judge and before the eyes of the law. When we say that justification is strictly forensic, we mean that justification is based on the holy history of Christ plus nothing. It means that the believing sinner must look to nothing in himself but solely to what Christ has done and suffered. If justification were not strictly forensic, then the righteous life and blood of Jesus would not be enough. Thus, a denial of forensic justification is a denial of the gospel.
We do not insist on forensic justification in order to maintain some legal abstraction, as Newman and the opponents of the Reformation faith claim. God's saving act in Christ constrains us to confess that nothing can be added or needs to be added to this perfect redemption. For the glory of Christ and for the comfort of troubled consciences, that finished work of Christ must remain the sole and all-sufficient basis of a right standing before the judgment of God.
Forensic justification does not mean a justification which takes place apart from regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. For when the sinner is incorporated into what exists for him in Christ, his state will be changed as well as his standing. He is given participation in the new creation and becomes a sharer of the Spirit and of the life of the new age. Thus, justification and regeneration are absolutely inseparable. But they must remain distinguishable since in this life the believer only experiences the firstfruits of the Spirit (Rom. 8:23). The believer's completeness is found only in Christ at God's right hand (Col. 2:9; 3:1-3). Since the righteousness by which he stands approved before the judgment of God must be whole and lacking nothing, the believer cannot find this in his regenerate state but only in what Christ has already done.
Newman, however, utterly confounded the believer's standing with the believer's state. He transferred the righteousness of faith from the finished work of Christ to the unfinished work of the Spirit in the heart. In calling forensic righteousness a shadow and an abstract fiction, Newman showed how little he valued the holy history of Christ.
Not grasping the reality of what God has already done prior to either our justification or sanctification, Newman saw the work of Christ merely as a stepping stone to secure the Holy Spirit. Then he ascribed our justification to the work of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity rather than to the Second Person. Instead of seeing the Spirit's work as incorporating us into the holy history of Christ, he saw the Spirit adding to the work of Christ.
Newman's failure to grasp the objective, historical gospel led him to propose that the individual's justification brings the new creation into existence. This is the theology of what has come to be called "effective justification. "It contends that God's justification is not a "bare," "mere" verdict but a creative word which creates what it declares. Thus, when God declares a sinner to be righteous, His word is said to make the sinner righteous—just as God said, "'Let there be light,' and there was light."
The truth, however, is that the new creation or the making righteous took place prior to the verdict of justification. It took place in God's act in Christ, and this is what the gospel announces. Newman's creation analogy is inappropriate to describe the reality of justification, for the first is an imperative command and the second is a statement of a fact. The verdict of justification finds a truer analogy in what God declared at Christ's baptism: "This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). We would like to ask the advocates of effective justification two simple questions about God's verdict upon His Son. Did that verdict make Christ pleasing to the Father? And if not, is this precious statement from the lips of the Father to be called a "bare," "mere" verdict?