A New Calvinist Book on Justification Perplexes
I have been asked to review Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed by Reformed theologian Alan J. Spence (T&TClark, 2012). Spence is a United Reformed Church pastor in the U.K.
I was asked to review it for The Evangelical Quarterly whose editor is I. Howard Marshall. I like the EQ partly because it has over the years published many excellent articles friendly to Arminianism.
I won’t repeat all my points about Spence’s book here. You’ll have to wait and read my complete review which I just submitted to the book review editor yesterday. I don’t know when it will be published.
However, I do want to mention some problematic points that I see in the book. I invite others who have read it, even Spence himself, should he see this review or the EQ one to respond.
As this is a blog devoted somewhat (if not primarily) to expounding and defending evangelical Arminianism, I will focus here primarily on issues of concern to Arminians raised in Spence’s book.
First, however, let me just say that I found much good in Justification. Unlike many other treatments of the subject by Protestants (especially Lutheran and Reformed theologians), it lacks the expected polemics against Catholic theology. Spence rightly distinguishes between, for example, what Thomas Aquinas actually taught about justification and what Trent taught. According to him (and I agree), Aquinas’s real doctrine of justification is much closer to Luther’s than most people recognize.
Spence is sympathetic to Augustine’s and Aquinas’s accounts of justification even though, in the end, he finds them inadequate. He clearly favor’s Calvin’s view of justification as synonymous with Union with Christ, but his main point throughout the book is that the entire Western tradition, up until Schleiermacher and N. T. Wright, was focused on justification as pardon.
Spence’s foil throughout the book is not Catholic theology but Wright’s “new perspective” on justification especially as expressed in What Paul Really Said (1997). The entire book appears to be a polemic against Wright’s idea of justification even though that is only discussed in the penultimate chapter.
Overall and in general, I agree with Spence that justification is about divine judgment and pardon. I’m not as confident as he seems to be that Wright would disagree. Especially in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (2009) Wright seems to include that dimension within his overall emphasis on ecclesiology as the setting for properly understanding justification. My final “take” on the matter is that Spence’s account of Wright’s concept of justification is wrong insofar as it fails to take into account Wright’s clarifications in Justification. As I have written here before, it seems to me that Wright’s main point is not to deny the connection between justification and salvation (or even forensic righteousness by faith) but to rediscover the proper setting for that doctrine which is membership in the people of God.
I am equally troubled by Spence’s treatment of Barth, but I’ll leave that for later and perhaps even for the review when it is published in EQ.
Here I wish to raise a question I only touch on in my review for EQ. It has to do with Calvinism and belief in heavenly rewards for faithful service.
When I was growing up in evangelical Christianity much emphasis was placed on future rewards given by God in heaven for faithful obedience to Jesus Christ in Christian living. This was simply assumed; it rarely had to be defended because there are so many Scripture passages that refer to them. This promise and hope was used to encourage us to strive for personal holiness and self-sacrificial service.
I remember my surprise when I discovered that Calvin also taught this. One locus is Institutes III:XVIII “Works Righteousness Is Wrongly Inferred from Reward.” Even in the thoroughly Arminian evangelicalism I grew up in this was emphasized—that when we receive our rewards in heaven we will joyfully cast them at Jesus’ feet out of gratitude for his sacrifice on the cross. (And thus, the name of the Christian band “Casting Crowns.) But we sang hymns about such rewards as reminders that there will be rewards in heaven for obedience and sacrificial service. (For example, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?”)
I often wonder why this doctrine of heavenly rewards has dropped away so entirely from most evangelical churches? I haven’t heard a sermon on them or even an illusion to them in a sermon in many years. Nor have I read them mentioned in any book of evangelical theology in a long time.
That’s why my attention was drawn to one particular passage in Spence’s book on page 151. Spence rightly emphasizes that even the justified will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of their lives and will receive some kind of evaluation from the Savior for works done (or not done) in the body:
“At the end, each one of us will be required to give a full account of our lives before the risen Christ, the plenipotentiary of God. He will graciously reward every loving act that he has accomplished among the faithful through his Spirit and grant to them the gift of eternal life.” (151, italic added for emphasis)
This is completely consistent with Calvin’s explanation of heavenly rewards in the chapter of Institutes mentioned above. Calvin and Spence both say that our heavenly rewards, though very real, are not grounds for boasting because they will be based on what God has done in us, not on our own achievements.
But, to get to my main point, this seems highly problematic to me. What is the purpose of the promise of rewards (and implied threat of no rewards!) if they are given out based solely on what God himself, through his Spirit, has accomplished among the faithful? That is, if you believe that every good work you accomplish is solely God’s accomplishment in you and not at all your own achievement, even by means of free acceptance of the Spirit’s work in you, then what is the point of reward? Is God rewarding himself? But, then, why are there differences of rewards—some greater and some lesser? Would God accomplish by himself, monergistically, anything less than perfection?
In other words, as difficult as it is for me to conceive, I can at least imagine that God constitutes very person’s life by divine decree so that whatever they accomplish or do not accomplish is God’s will. What I cannot even imagine, however, is a reasonable and good God meting out rewards in varying degrees of approval based on what people achieved or did not achieve (in terms of obedience and service) when whatever they achieved or did not achieve was wholly, entirely and solely accomplished by God in and through them.
The only way to make any sense of this is to say that 1) any good achieved and accomplished by a person is due entirely to God’s gracious enablement (so that nobody can boast), but 2) people are responsible freely to allow God to do his work in and through them.
On the one hand, Calvinists rightly wish to avoid any possibility of boasting. On the other hand, Arminians rightly wish to preserve the meaningfulness of the judgment seat of Christ and of rewards for obedience and service. What we MUST agree about is that such rewards will not be grounds for boasting. Arminians can affirm that together with Calvinists because, at the moment of receiving the reward, whether great or small, the person will know that he or she would have been unable to do anything apart from God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling power.
But we must also agree that the rewards will be real and meaningful rewards for freely deciding to allow the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to work in believers’ lives.
My fear is that Spence, and Calvin before him, rob rewards of any meaning and imply that God is actually rewarding himself and not believers. If that is the case, why mention rewards at all? Why preach or teach heavenly rewards as motivation for obedience and service as the New Testament clearly does?
Ah, yes…the Calvinist will say “foreordained means to a foreordained end.” Back to that. But this seems to take to an extreme a right emphasis on God’s sovereignty and glory. The upshot of it all, then, is that whatever a believer is or is not accomplishing is out of his or her control. And that at the judgment seat of Christ all God will be doing is rewarding himself. Now, this might make sense WERE IT NOT FOR THE DEGREES OF REWARDS ISSUE. Clearly there will be degrees of rewards. How is God glorified in awarding to himself a lesser reward than is possible?
My point is that the Calvinist doctrine of rewards involves a conundrum. It actually makes no sense at all. Which is perhaps WHY preaching and teaching about heavenly rewards has virtually ceased. They only make sense within a synergistic view of sanctification.
In the past, and perhaps to some extent still today, SOME Reformed preachers have taught that justification and regeneration are monergistic while sanctification is not. That doesn’t seem to fit with a consistently Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty, however, and as Calvinism has become increasingly consistent under the influence of people like Sproul and Piper (and yet, in my opinion, still very inconsistent) any element of synergism, even in sanctification, is slipping away (if not totally condemned).
It seems to me that heavenly rewards is an inescapable biblical truth. Calvin believed that. Obviously Spence believes it. Who can even deny it? And yet it makes no sense within a strictly, consistently monergistic soteriology (in which even sanctification is interpreted as solely God’s work to the exclusion of any free human contribution in which “free” is understood as power of contrary choice).