Part 9 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Justification

Part 9 of Response to The Gospel as Center: Justification April 29, 2012

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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