Part 9 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Justification

Part 9 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Chapter 9, “Justification” by Philip Graham Ryken

After a brief hiatus I return to my promised series of responses to The Gospel Coalition’s book The Gospel as Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices edited by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller (Crossway, 2012).

Philip Graham Ryken, Presbyterian Church of America minister and president of Wheaton College writes about the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone which he calls the “Chief Article.” He says “this doctrine holds a place near the center of the gospel.” (153)

Ryken bases most of his exposition of justification on passages from Romans, especially chapters 3 and 5. According to him, these Pauline passages and other passages of the New Testament, taken together, propound the truth that in salvation God “does not simply clear a sinner of all charges; he declares a sinner to be positively righteous. Justification is God’s legal declaration that, on the basis of the perfect life and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, received by faith, a sinner is as righteous as his own beloved Son.” (155-156)

This chapter is, for the most part, a straightforward account of the classical Lutheran-Reformed doctrine of justification as forensic imputation of righteousness. The emphasis is on legal metaphors, on declaration and imputation and not on personal relationship, reconciliation or transformation (of the person being saved). Salvation is primarily a change of legal status in relation to God’s judgment.

Ryken rejects any idea that justification is primarily forgiveness; it includes that but is much more. In fact, he says, to deny the “legal category of justification” (viz., alien righteousness imputed) “is to believe in a God of unjust love who forgives people without having any right to do so.” (156) In other words, I take it, he believes the very doctrine of God is at stake in his doctrine of justification. Anyone who thinks God can simply forgive a repentant sinner without imputing Christ’s righteousness to him or her (something else he makes clear in the chapter) is impugning the character of God. I don’t know any other way to interpret that strong statement.

The controversial core of the chapter is “The Righteousness of Justification: A Triple Imputation.” Ryken argues that Adam’s sin (meaning guilt) is imputed to everyone; our sin is imputed to Christ (on the cross) and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us in salvation. The key verses he cites for this triple imputation are Romans 5:12-19 (imputation of Adam’s sin to us) and 2 Corinthians 5:21 (our sins imputed to Christ and his righteousness imputed to us).

Ryken confuses me, however, when he writes that “in repentance, a believer’s sin is imputed to Christ.” (162) I thought the classical Lutheran-Reformed doctrine of justification is that our sin is imputed to Christ on the cross, not when we repent. Our repentance is when his righteousness (according to Ryken, active and passive) is imputed to us with the result that we are justified, made right with God.

Then, immediately following that, Ryken says that “The imputation of justifying righteousness restores the righteousness that humanity lost through original sin.” (162) I thought justification was more than just a return to original righteousness which was simply lack of guilt. Surely Adam did not have Christ’s own active and passive obedience, righteousness, imputed to him by God.

Then, on page 163 (so, just a paragraph or two after those puzzling claims) Ryken has this paragraph: “Thus the justification of sinners is also the justification or vindication of God. In justification, God proves his justice by dealing justly as well as mercifully with sinners through the cross. A transaction has taken place: our sin was imputed to Christ, and he was condemned; his righteousness is imputed to us, and we are justified.” That makes it sound as if our sin (guilt) was imputed to Christ on the cross, not when we repent.

Perhaps this is simply quibbling, but I don’t think so. It seems to be a blatant contradiction in Ryken’s exposition of justification. I would like to know how he reconciles those two seemingly contradictory claims. (Viz., that our sin is imputed to Christ when we repent and that our sin was imputed to Christ on the cross.)

My basic response to this chapter is that 1) it does portray salvation in purely forensic terms even though Ryken says there is more to salvation than justification by faith. (153) The only hint of the “more” is union with Christ; 2) it seems to take the doctrine of justification further than anything Scripture explicitly says—especially the idea that Christ’s active and passive obedience are imputed to us by God in salvation. That’s a theological deduction from Scripture, which may be valid, but Scripture nowhere explicitly says that.

I think Ryken’s heavily forensic doctrine of justification runs ahead of Scripture. For example, on page 157 he discusses the all important passage Romans 3: 21-22. The issue is, of course, whether the righteousness imputed to us is God’s own righteousness (righteousness of God) or simply righteousness “from God.” Everything depends on how one interprets the Greek—as either a possessive genitive or a genitive of origin. Is the righteousness referred to God’s or “from God?” Ryken says both “certainly.” Really? Why “certainly?”

Of course, this is at the heart of the debate between N. T. Wright and certain Calvinist authors. But it is also at the heart of a debate in Lutheran circles between defenders of strict alien righteousness and strict imputation (forensic righteousness) and the Finnish School of Luther Research that emphasizes inward transformation as part and parcel of justification. (For a complete account of all major Christian views of justification see Justification: Five Views edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy [InterVarsity Press].)

As usual, my main qualm about this chapter (and most of the chapters) is that it seems to pack too much theology into “the gospel.” Surely the gospel is the good news that because of what Christ has done for us, and freely as a gift on account of faith only, God forgives those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

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  • Matt

    I find it quite ironic that the neo-Reformed crowd are not afraid to voice their strong displeasure with the New Perspective on Paul, in that a hallmark of the NPP is that Paul’s use of the term “works of the Law” should be understood as Jewish boundary markers that Gentile Christians do not need to keep. Isn’t the Gospel Coalition setting up theological boundary markers all over the place in their insistence that we agree with them on these interpretive minutiae? At times it seems more like the Reformed Systematic Coalition.

    • rogereolson

      So far, from what I’ve read, that would seem to be a better label for the group. It looks to me like they all read Charles Hodge religiously and confuse his systematic theology with the gospel itself.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “Surely the gospel is the good news that because of what Christ has done for us, and freely as a gift on account of faith only, God forgives those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.”

    I guess it just seems to me that a full statement of the Gospel should also name the Holy Spirit. 

    We are forgiven and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. But we are also made new creatures in Christ and have received the Holy Spirit.

    • rogereolson

      I try to keep a statement of “the gospel” as brief as possible. Out from there radiate many important strands of truth. But at some point it all begins to become speculative. I would include teaching about the Holy Spirit in the important strands of truth category. Forensic justification as “triple imputation” seems to me more speculative than directly part of the gospel.

  • Jeremiah

    I wonder how they fit the imputation of Christ’s passive and active obedience with the judgment seat of Christ?

    • rogereolson

      For the elect–the meting out of rewards?

  • Praveen

    Brother Olson
    there is a classic difference between Lutheran and Reformed understanding of Justification
    Reformed – IF you repent and Believe that Christ died for you, then you will be saved (Justified etc.)
    Lutheran – They (including me) believe in something called Objective Universal Justification – At the cross of Christ God forgave the world and declared the world Righteous. Believe.
    Hope that was helpful
    My qualms with the neo reformed understanding of Justification is this : I know i am supposed to repent of my sins, but what should i believe in?
    A consistent Calvinist will not be able to Look into my eye and say – Believe that Christ died for you. Why? He himself is not sure that he is one of the elect 🙂
    that’s the reason he cannot really preach the gospel to me – Just only in vague terms..Christ died for sinners, and if you repent and believe ….(what should i believe in …so on and on with the circular logic…)

    • rogereolson

      Do all Lutherans believe in what you call Objective Universal Atonement? I haven’t read the Augsburg Confession or the Book of Concord for a while. Are you saying that’s contained in them somewhere? If so, please point me/us to the location. I know some Reformed who believe in what you call Objective Universal Justification–only Barth (for example) would probably call it Objective Universal Reconciliation. Wesleyans believe in something like this as well–that Christ’s death set aside the penalty for original sin for all people. Anabaptists believe the same.

  • Praveen

    i Need to add this too
    Reformed – Neo-Calvinists- I have heard this so many, many times
    Christ died for all of those who would ever turn from the sins and believe…
    again i ask : what should i believe in.
    and again the circular logic – Christ died for me only if i repent of my sins and believe that Christ died for me….
    very funny

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    According to Dr. Olson, Rykin proposes that “Justification is God’s legal declaration that, on the basis of the perfect life and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, received by faith, a sinner is as righteous as his own beloved Son.” (155-156)

    The above statement contains the typical FATAL FLAW of almost all evangelical salvation theology, i.e., that not withstanding “the perfect life and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ,” it’s still not enough to save a soul. No, something else will always be added and crammed into every evangelical stated requirement for salvation: the FATAL FLAW requirement that the sinner’s salvation must first be “received by faith” (the sinner’s faith) in order to be consummated. In fact, a sinner’s faith is of no more salvific value than his good works. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it [salvation] is the gift of God…” (Eph 2:8 NIV). Also, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ…” (Gal 2:16 KJV). Finally, “Before this faith [Christ] came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith [Christ] should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith [Christ] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Gal 3:23-26). See these verses (23-26) in the English Standard Version and in Young’s Literal Translation.

    • rogereolson

      You might put a thousand dollars in my bank account, and then it is mine, but if I refuse to access it, it does me no good. I might starve to death refusing to accept your generosity. That’s hell.

      • Ivan A. Rogers

        If God sacrificially invests good blood to your account, he will see to it that you will ultimately “access” it. If not in this world, then later in the world to come. He will not allow a single drop his of blood investment on behalf of humanity to be wasted (see Rom 11:32 – “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” He is the great ‘GOD-FATHER’ whose mercy you can’t refuse.

        • rogereolson

          It seems to me that mercy that can’t be refused isn’t mercy at all.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hum. Good point. But it seems many fail to get the point that the batteries are included. 🙂

  • JoeyS

    It seems that Ryken’s understanding would mean that God is dependent upon this justification to be God. How is God dependent upon anything for His own identity? That seems like a rather small god.

    • rogereolson

      This is a question (or similar to it) that I have explored with several leading Reformed theologians: IF the whole project of creation-redemption, from beginning to end, is “for God’s glory,” meaning “for God’s self-glorification,” then it would seem that God is more glorious with the world than without it. Some Reformed theologians are not hesitant to affirm that, but others hesitate because that would imply some dependence of God on the world for his full glory–the exact opposite of their most basic presupposition about God.

      • Jonathan

        And not only dependence on a world, but on this particular world with certain beings created in his image to receive the fullness of his wrath and certain beings created in his image to receive the fullness of his mercy. I just don’t see how eternally decreed reprobation and salvation for the ultimate glory of God can have any other logical end. He MUST damn some in order to receive the fullness of His glory meaning that, in the end, God’s ultimate glory is not self-sufficient but rather contingent on damnation… Let’s say it again… God’s person necessitates the eternal damnation of some human beings. Why do they look at us with three eyes when we say their God appears to be more like the devil?

  • Bev Mitchell

    The indentation function for making a reply to a reply, as opposed to a reply to the main article, is not working.

    “The Mediation of Christ” by T.F. Torrance would fit perfectly in this discussion. One quip of his, I think it comes from this book, goes something like this. A student asked, “Dr. Torrance, when were you saved?” He responded “At Calvary.” Does anyone think that Torrance strong Trinitarian, reformed approach would be especially helpful in ministering to the neo-puritian mind? At least the book referred to above is an easy read, for a work by TFT.

  • Praveen

    Good Morning Brother Olson
    i had spend considerable amount of time, long time ago going through old Lutheran journals and talking to others. at first, i could not believe it…but then the more i looked into scriptures and what they were saying, i was amazed and very happy.
    I am sorry that i don’t even know where i stored all my files and notes…
    I remember reading the lectures of the Late Robert Preus; In which he openly affirms OUJ.
    just to make sure, i emailed his son, and he corresponded with me the same doctrine.
    Dr. C. F. W. Walther taught it in his eastern sermons
    According to Bro. Preus Sr.,- – Francis Pieper, Theodore Engelder and others taught it publicly.
    The only serious challenge, that I know of, that came against it (very gradually) was from Professor Walter A. Maier, Jr. of one of their seminaries.
    And the case was closed, I has supposed (I do not know the present state of Lutheran theology ) when R. R. C. H. Lenski, Siegbert W. Becker and others wrote for OUJ, and gave some replies to Professor Walter A. Maier, Jr. in some journal articles.
    Hope that was helpful

  • Roger,
    I have a great appreciation for the forensic or legal aspects of justification, but I find little appreciation among many (not all) that I read for the organic aspects of God’s salvation. Romans 5:10 includes both. 5:10a is the forensic or judicial part “For if we, being enemies, were reconciled to God through the death of His Son…” while 10b has the organic side “…much more we will be saved in His life, having been reconciled.”