An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Greetings, and welcome again to an Author Interview here on Books At a Glance. I’m Fred Zaspel, and today we’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Matthew Barrett about his outstanding new book, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. I said it last time – it really is a “must have” resource on the doctrine. If you missed our first interview with Dr. Barrett, you can catch up with it here on our site.
Today I’ll be asking Dr. Barrett to give us some samplings of the content of his book. He gives us the doctrine of justification as it relates to exegetical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and pastoral theology. Today – exegetical theology.
Matthew, what are some of the more important ways the Old Testament presents or at least anticipates this doctrine?
Well, it’s important, even in what you just asked, it’s important to recognize that the doctrine of justification by faith alone isn’t something that is invented in the New Testament. It’s not as if this is a New Testament doctrine that is foreign to the Old Testament. It’s also not the case that the New Testament authors are imposing this understanding of justification on the Old Testament. It’s crucial to mention that at the beginning because sometimes in the church, Christians can really assume that the Old Testament is all about works and the New Testament is where we see grace. But I would challenge that common misconception. I realize there’s probably reasons for it. We tend to identify the Old Testament with law and then when we come to the New Testament we think, okay, now Jesus has brought grace to us. But when we understand the New Testament properly, we’ll recognize that the New Testament authors are actually quoting the Old Testament. And not just occasionally; it pervades their writings. In fact, sometimes it’s explicit quotations and other times it’s allusions. It could be typology. There’s just countless ways.
In fact, Paul insists on that in Romans, doesn’t he? That this gospel I’m preaching is one that was given to me.
That’s exactly right. Paul, or Peter, or John or Jesus himself, don’t see themselves as inventing something new here. They actually see themselves as carrying on that which was given to them. That explains a lot, because when you come to Paul, for example, you think of Galatians. There’s good reason why he’s going all the way back, not just to the prophets, but all the way back to Genesis. He’s going to talk about Abraham; and he’s going to do this to show his readers, Jews or Gentiles, depending upon which book it is, he’s going to show them that his doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the doctrine of imputation, as well, that these are grounded in the Old Testament. And we should know this much because this is part of God’s one plan of salvation.
I suppose I could be more specific and talk about certain places in the Old Testament. I think one of them that comes to mind is Genesis 15. Very early on, in fact, where God appears to Abraham and makes a covenant with Abraham. He’s given these covenant promises, and there you see the beginning of Genesis 15, when he makes these promises to Abraham. Abraham responds and says, I don’t have any offspring, who is going to be the heir that’s going to be the one who inherits these promises and carries them on? At that point, Yahweh responds and says Abraham is not going to be who you think, I’m going to provide you with an heir, even in your old age. And he does something remarkable. He takes Abraham outside and says, “Abraham, look at the heavens. Can you count the stars?” And he says, “if you are able to number the stars, then you can number your offspring.” That is an astonishing promise to a man who has no heir, yet.
And an old man at that!
And an old man at that! Right? Not to forget Sarah, as well. And on top of all that, he’s taking Abraham out of the land he knows and telling him to go to land that he doesn’t know. This whole circumstance, apart from faith, seems impossible, ridiculous, crazy! However, we read in Genesis 15:6, Abraham’s response. When God says to him, this is how many your offspring shall be, we read that Abraham believed the Lord. He believed him, so there is faith, and then it says that he counted it to him as righteousness.
The New Testament authors, Paul in particular, are going to make much of this to say, here is justification. Abraham was counted righteous; it’s not by his works; it’s through trusting in the covenant promises that God has made to him. And from that point forward we begin to see what Abraham’s faith looks like. It’s going to be tested, seriously tested at times, but we see that it’s the real thing. He really does have faith and the testing experiences are going to show that. It doesn’t mean that Abraham is sinless; it doesn’t mean that he’s not going to struggle, at times. Peter points us that as he is tested, he is going to need to renew his trust in God. But here in Genesis 15, what we see is justification itself. That, in this moment, Abraham trusts in what God says, he trusts in God’s promises, and he is right with God as a result.
This is a remarkable passage because it puts the rest of the Old Testament in perspective. So that, as you progress through the Old Testament, this is how one is right with God. And, of course, we are talking about Abraham, but we have to recognize that this is God’s doing. Abraham doesn’t justify himself. He doesn’t somehow make himself righteous. God is the one who counts Abraham right with him and declares him righteous in his sight. And this is going to be the case moving forward with so many other figures. There is a tension, however, especially after Sinai and the giving of the law. The law promises life to those who obey it, but there is a major problem. And it’s this: Israel cannot, indeed she will not, follow God. She will not keep the law. She will not be faithful to the covenant that God has made with her. And so, as a result, the law, though there’s nothing inherently wrong with the law, it’s God’s law, it’s a gift to Israel, it’s a gracious gift, in that sense; but, because of her inability and her idolatry, the law then becomes a prosecuting witness against Israel, condemning Israel and revealing, exposing, Israel’s inability to keep it. This is why, when we come to the prophets, for example, they are very excited about this new covenant that God is promising. Because the law is no longer going to be written on tablets of stone. It’s going to be echoed in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it’s going to be written on the hearts, so that God’s people actually know it, and do it, and love it. Well, this is going to require the implantation of a new heart, and it’s just the work of the Holy Spirit, and this is preparing, the story is progressing. God’s plan is progressing, here, so that by the time Jesus and the apostles arrive on the scene, they are announcing this good news of the new covenant. And what that means for justification, well, it means the same thing it meant for Abraham. It’s not as if Abraham is justified in a different way than the way that we are justified. No, it’s through faith. We could even say that faith is instrumental. It’s through faith and it’s by God’s grace, alone. It’s God’s initiative; it’s God’s doing. We can get into some of the more specifics later, but it’s his declaration that we are right with him. Not on the basis of anything that we have done, but in light of what Christ has done, it’s entirely on the basis of our Savior and his obedient sacrificial work on our behalf.
And how about justification by faith in the Gospels?
Yes, well, this may seem strange to talk about justification in the Gospels. Maybe those listening will think, isn’t justification just a Pauline doctrine? Sometimes our tendency here is to set Jesus and Paul over against one another. I’ve always thought that’s really odd because who is Paul? Well, he’s an apostle. He is one who was radically converted by the risen Christ who appeared to him. It’s a strange thing, but nevertheless, I think part of the reason we think that way is because we go to the Gospels and say these are parables, this is the sermon on the Mount, or Jesus seems to be talking about Christian living, so this seems to be a different thing than what Paul is doing. And sometimes we can take our approach to Paul, which is very direct, Paul is very explicit at times. He’s dealing with some very controversial issues in the church, and he’s just going to directly deal with those and address issues like justification and whether one is justified by works of the law or through faith in Christ alone.
Sometimes we can think of Paul’s methodology there and then we go to the Gospels and we’re really disappointed because we just don’t see anywhere, or at least it’s rare, where you see that type of very didactic approach to a doctrine, maybe with a few exceptions. Sometimes some scholars have said, well, it’s just not in the Gospels, it’s just foreign to the Gospels, and this is a Pauline thing. I would push back against that, actually, and I would say maybe we’re not respecting different genres at this point, recognizing that Paul is writing the epistles. These are letters to the church and he’s intending to address these issues head on. That’s not the same type of genre. There may be overlap, but it’s not the exact same type of genre as the Gospels or Acts, in which there’s a story, there’s a narrative that’s unfolding here. The Gospels sometimes have a biographical element to them, as well.
Does that mean that justification is not there? No, absolutely not! It is there, but it comes out in a different way. It comes out in a different manner. We have to learn to read the Gospels through a different lens, the lens that the Gospels themselves give to us. What does that look like? Well, let me just give an example. When we come to the Gospels, how do we see justification come through? Take Matthew’s gospel for example. Isn’t it interesting that Matthew begins with a genealogy and he locates Christ, this Messiah figure, and he goes back to David and Abraham. You could look at Luke’s gospel as well; Luke goes all the way back to Adam. Why is this? Well, whether it’s Matthew or Luke, what they are doing is they are positioning Christ as one, in Luke’s case, who is a second Adam. Even Matthew does this, not only by connecting Jesus to David and then Abraham, showing that this is the Davidic king. This is the one who has come to fulfill the promises that God made to Father Abraham. But in doing so, they put Christ in the position to act in a way that Adam failed to act. In other words, Adam comes as one who represents us, but he fails in that representation. He is our head, he is our representative of a covenant and he represents us; but because he sins, we received from him everything that has gone wrong. We received the sinful nature, we received his guilt and so we stand condemned in Adam. But the Gospels then take us to Christ who is a different Adam, a second Adam, a last Adam. One who represents us like Adam did, one who is bringing about a covenant like Adam did, but does so successfully. How do we see that play itself out? Well, in Matthew’s gospel, for example, Jesus is this representative who is baptized, he goes under the waters as a type of new Israel and he comes out of the waters as one who is baptized for Israel, for their forgiveness, representing them in this way. And then he is driven into the wilderness to be tempted forty days. Again, very symbolic language here. Why? Because he is recapitulating Israel’s history in the wilderness and as he does so he is doing this for us, or for them, we could say. So that he is resisting temptation from Satan himself and is remaining obedient to the Word of God ultimately, to use John’s language in his gospel, ultimately to the Father. Why is he doing this? He’s doing this for us and our salvation.
All of this type of imagery and typology, all of this drives home what in systematics we would call active and passive obedience. That Christ is not only suffering for us, for the penalty of the law that we deserve; but he is also fulfilling all righteousness, to use Gospel language. He’s fulfilling all righteousness. He is obeying the law so that his perfect record of obedience then becomes ours, it’s imputed to our account. I could go on, but all that to say, in the Gospels you see justification come out in a far more organic holistic sense. It’s not a proof text, necessarily, but we have to look at the entire life of Christ, how everything from his obedience to his death to his resurrection, how that sets us up for our relationship to him, our union with Christ and our justification before a holy God.
And then of course we have the epistles, especially Paul. Summarize Paul’s doctrine for us in terms of Andy Naselli’s chapter, “The Righteous God Righteously Righteouses the Unrighteous.” It’s a great way to say it – explain this for us.
Well, how much time you have? (Laughing) We laugh about this, right? Because anyone who pays attention the number of books published every year on Paul and something related to justification or Pauline theology, it’s overwhelming! And there’s as many Pauls as there are scholars out there, or it seems like, at least.
If we put all that aside, yes, I think there is a core, an essence of Paul that is clear in the New Testament despite all the many interpretations of Paul today. I know it can be overwhelming, but I think when you read the New Testament, Paul’s mindset is very clear on this. As you mentioned a minute ago, Andy Naselli’s chapter does a great job of looking at a book like Romans in order to reveal Paul’s train of thought. And that title gets at the essence of it, right? First of all, Romans 3 immediately comes to mind. Paul begins in Romans 1 and 2, with horrific news, bad news. I like to tell my students before you get to the good news of the Gospel you have to come to terms. And this is Paul, whether it’s Romans or Ephesians, he does the same thing. You think of how Ephesians 2 begins. It begins with condemnation, that by nature we are children of wrath. Well, that’s true in Romans, as well. Paul begins with this terrible news that not just one of us, or not just some of us, but all of humanity stands under God’s condemnation, and deservedly so. We’re those who are under his wrath because not only are we in Adam and not only have we inherited from Adam his guilt and corruption, but we act on it the first chance we get. Then we suppress the truth that has been revealed through the creator; we suppress it, and instead we do the irrational. We flip the world upside down, we start worshiping that which is created rather than the Creator himself, and sometimes in ways that are just appalling.
But all that to say, Paul, when he comes to Romans 3, he really presents… And here he’s covering so much of history in the broadest of strokes. Paul, in Romans 3, presents us with a dilemma. Because God is righteous, he is perfectly holy. And if that is true, there is no hope for us. Because if he is righteous, if he is perfect in his holiness, then as judge, not just Creator, but now, with sin entering the world, as judge, to remain righteous and holy he can’t just turn a blind eye to our sin. He can’t just sweep it under the rug. This is sometimes the way Christians talk and it’s very misleading. As if since God’s gracious, he’ll cut you a break, or something like that. That compromises his moral integrity, his righteousness, his holiness. So, Paul presents us with this seemingly impossible dilemma that we find ourselves in. Paul then transitions from that terrible news to the greatest news of all, that there is a solution. Believe it or not, there is a solution.
How? How does that solution come about? It comes about in Christ Jesus. It’s only if Christ obeys for us, dies for us, rises for us. It’s only if that happens that God can be both just and the justifier – two things that seemingly can’t go together. But in Christ Jesus, because of what he has done, now God has found a way for him to remain righteous. And at the same time to righteously, to use Andy’s language here, the righteous God righteously righteouses the unrighteous. This is very Pauline language on righteousness. This is the category Paul places us in. He says of those that are ungodly, we are unrighteous. So the only way, then, that we are right with God is if this just God can declare us righteous. How does that happen? It doesn’t happen on the basis of anything we do. Rather, it’s entirely on the basis of what Christ has done, because he is the perfect, righteous one. And by laying down his life, now God has a justifiable basis on which to justify those who are seemingly incapable of justification. So, you have in Romans 3, this beautiful passage in which Paul is celebrating the fact that in Christ God is both the just and the justifier of those who have faith in him.
Of course, the rest of Romans teases that out so that by the time you come to Romans 8:1, Paul is rejoicing. There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Here, Paul will get evangelistic. By the time he gets to the end of his letter, he gets very evangelistic to say, go take this good news of Christ Jesus to the world, because it’s only through faith in this risen Jesus that the ungodly will be justified. It’s the greatest news of all in Paul’s mind, and I would agree with him. Now notice, even in the way Paul presents this, faith itself doesn’t become a work; rather, faith is, to use theological language, here, it’s the instrumental means by which we are justified on the basis of what Christ has done. The basis is the work of Christ, and it’s by God’s grace, alone, of course. It’s not on the basis of anything we’ve done, not even in part, not even the slightest. So, how are we declared righteous in God’s sight? It’s entirely through faith in Jesus Christ, himself.
We can get into some of these details later, but what’s being assumed in Paul’s argument in Romans is that this is a forensic matter. It’s a legal matter. This has to do with our status before a holy God. We were guilty. Now, we are declared righteous. Not because we intrinsically have made ourselves holy. No, what has happening is God has made a legal declaration that’s because we are in Christ Jesus, we are no longer guilty but righteous in his sight.
Talk to us about Paul and James and the question of their alleged disagreement. On a verbal level, at least, you can understand the confusion where James says, see that a person is justified by works and not by faith, alone. Talk to us about that question and how we resolve that.
Well, in the history of the church some have gone this direction to interpret James. Many Roman Catholics will do this; they will go to James and say that justification by faith alone can’t be accurate, it can’t be true because here it seems as though James says just the opposite. And I suppose in some evangelical circles, that creates a type of confusion, maybe because we believe what Paul is saying, but then we just don’t know what to do with James. It seems as though James is saying the exact opposite. Should we just throw James out? Should we try to just dismiss him? I don’t think that’s the way to go. Dan McCartney has a chapter where he talks about what it means to reconcile what appears to be a contradiction here between James and Paul. So, listeners may want to look at his chapter.
These things are really hard to summarize in brief, but let me give it a shot. I think, in brief, when we look at Paul and James, we need to understand (and this is true whenever we read any book of the Bible) that there’s a context and that both are reacting to different types of audiences, different types of readers. You think of a book like Galatians in which Paul is very aggressively going after this idea that justification could be based in part on something within us, some works of the law, perhaps. And there are certain individuals Paul has in mind that he believes are muddying the Gospel and justification, specifically. So that Paul is going to stress that if you rely on the works of the law, you are not justified in God’s sight. And so Paul’s language is very strong, there. He will say things like, you are not justified by works of the law. No one is righteous by works of the law, and he goes to the Old Testament to demonstrate that. In light of those who are arguing that that is possible, or that’s the route we should go, Paul is going to push back strongly and say, no, it’s through faith, alone.
I think James is dealing with a different challenge, not unrelated, but a different one. There are some in his audience, no doubt, maybe some in the church, who don’t treat the Christian life, and works in particular, as something that is important, as something that should characterize the Christian. Worst case scenario… And we see this today, don’t we? Where you have someone who claims to be a Christian and they take advantage of the grace of God. They will use God’s grace as an excuse to live however they want, which is very dangerous. And so, James is going to strongly stress that works have a significant role to play in the Christian life. I don’t think what James is trying to do there is counter what Paul has said. I don’t think he’s trying to emphasize that you are declared right with God on the basis of works that you’ve done. But I do think James is trying to emphasize that if you are truly in Christ Jesus, if you are truly justified by his grace, then that will naturally and inevitably and necessarily result in fruit. And good works are the fruit. In systematic terms, we would call this sanctification. We don’t want to confuse justification and sanctification, but we also don’t want to divorce them from one another, as if a person could be justified and sanctification is irrelevant. No, in the minds of the biblical authors, and for James, no doubt, if one is truly justified then sanctification must follow. It will follow. For anyone to claim that works are something that doesn’t have to define me, or I don’t have to exhibit, well, James is going to question. Are you truly a Christian? Are you truly justified? Because it doesn’t seem like that is the case, based on how you are living and acting. So, James is trying to make sure that we are not losing that connection between what we might call justification or, in broader terms, initial conversion with faith and repentance, to the rest of the Christian life. Those things can’t be divorced from one another.
Someone has put it in this way, and I have found it helpful: that Paul and James are not standing face-to-face, fighting each other; they are standing back-to-back, fighting off different enemies. And, in fact, the argument that James is making is an argument that Paul himself will make.
Yes. Many forget that, don’t they? Paul actually has much to say about works and the Christian life and works being a necessary fruit of justification. In fact, he is, at times, going to deal with this problem, as well. I think that’s a good image. They are not facing off with one another, they are actually standing back-to-back to respond to challenges on both sides.
We’re talking to Dr. Matthew Barrett, editor of the excellent new book, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. It really is a “must have” resource on the doctrine. We’ll talk to Dr. Barrett about this further next time here on Books At a Glance.
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The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective