An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Welcome again to Books At a Glance. I’m Fred Zaspel, and we’re talking again today with Dr. Matthew Barrett about his new book, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. If you missed the first two installments of this interview you’ll definitely want to catch up on our site (here and here), but today we take the conversation a bit further.
Matthew – good to have you back.
Thank you. Glad to be back.
Okay, your book has four major sections: Justification in Biblical Perspective – a study in exegetical theology – Justification in Theological Perspective, Justification in Church History, and Justification in Pastoral Practice. Last time we looked more at the first part; today we’ll focus more on the second – Justification in Theological Perspective. But first, your title: how is this doctrine of justification The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls? Obviously, that’s taken from Luther, but explain that for us. Why is it so foundational?
The reformers never used that exact title; it came a little bit later. Nevertheless, they did say things that were close to it and the idea certainly is prevalent. The concept itself is prevalent throughout their writings, their controversies, their sermons. What did they mean by asserting this type of centrality? Well, whether it’s Luther or Calvin or someone like Melancthon or many others, they’re trying to convey that if we get justification wrong, and they knew this firsthand with what they were seeing in the Roman church of their day, they said, “if we get this doctrine wrong, everything else can go wrong.” Everything from the Gospel, misunderstanding how the Spirit applies the work of Christ, misunderstanding what Jesus has accomplished and just how sufficient or effective that is for the Christian. Too, on the flipside of justification, what it means to live the Christian life. Are we living this life as one who is justified or as one who is attempting to become justified, and really lacks assurance whether one is ever justified. Well, that has huge implications for the Christian life and then for the church, as a whole. What is the message that the church is meant to preach and proclaim? And is it really good news? And the reformers understood that if justification isn’t by grace alone through faith alone, it’s not good news. Actually, it creates a situation of anxiety, one in which God is only viewed as judge or Christ is viewed only as judge. All that to say, at the end of the day, they understood that there is a sense in which, though it’s not the only doctrine in the Christian faith, is not the only important doctrine in the Christian faith, they understood that if we get this wrong, the church itself could fall. It’s interesting, if you look at the very beginning of Luther’s commentary on Galatians in which he has this short preface and he says this much, but then he makes the statement that if we get justification right, everything else will blossom and everything else will fall into place. So, I think Luther understood that everything hinges on this in a sense, because if we get it wrong the whole Christian faith can suddenly be misunderstood. If we get it right, however, everything from the proclamation of the Gospel, to how we live the Christian life, to what the mission of the church is, all of that, then, falls into proper perspective.
You discussed last time that in justification the righteous God righteously righteouses the unrighteous, to use Andy Naselli’s title. Explain for us how the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ is central to all this.
Well, really, listeners really need to go read Steve Wellum’s chapter. I hate to even say anything because I’m not sure I can capture it as well as Steve does. His chapter on this is superb. But, if I was to just give you a little bit of a teaser… And of course, this isn’t removed from what we talked about before with the book of Romans. There Steve makes the case that a proper understanding of justification which is forensic and legal and imputation, as well, depends on a right biblical understanding of the atonement. What does that mean? Well, if it’s the case that justification involves not an internal transformation in which we become righteous, but a legal declaration, and if that legal declaration involves imputation, well, the imputation of what? That’s the big question, right? What exactly is being imputed to us? Wellum argues that it’s none other than the righteousness of Christ.
That takes us back to the life and death of Christ. When we talk about what Christ accomplished, we can talk about him obeying the law on our behalf as a last Adam, a second Adam, and Paul highlights this in Romans 5. We can also talk about him suffering the penalty of the law, that we deserve its curse. The very wrath of God – that’s the penalty for breaking the law and we see that from the beginning, is death itself. Well, if this is what we deserve for our ungodliness, the very judgment and wrath of God, then the only way we can be justified and then reconciled to God is if there is a substitute. Someone who can mediate between God and man, mediate God to man, and that is none other than Christ Jesus. He comes, as the Gospels stressed so much, he comes to die for us. And here they are echoing Isaiah’s language. He comes as one who steps in our place; he’s pierced for our transgressions; he’s crushed for our iniquities. What does that involve? It means that at the Cross he is satisfying the wrath that was ours. He is cursed in our stead. All of this, theologians have used the phrase penal to capture the penalty aspect and substitution to capture the representational aspect. Well, penal substitutionary atonement proves quite essential, then, if there is going to be a great exchange. The Reformers loved to talk about how there is this marvelous or great exchange in which Christ takes our sins. He takes the punishment for the guilt of our sins. What do we receive in exchange? We receive everything. We receive his perfect righteousness. We receive the forgiveness of our sins. This exchange that takes place presupposes that justification has to be connected to a right biblical understanding of the atonement.
Okay, in justification it is the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us. Explain for us Paul’s language in Romans 4 where he says that “faith is imputed as righteousness.”
First of all, let me say it’s hard for any one chapter to deal with everything. There’s been a book, maybe five or six years ago, by Brian Vickers, where he deals with this very issue, and it’s excellent. I think the book is called Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness and Brian gives a very exegetical treatment of passages like this, including this one. If I remember right, I think Brian makes an argument that is really on target where he demonstrates that this language of faith is not as if, and some have read it this way to say that because Paul is mentioning faith that means our justification is on the basis of faith. And they’ve argued that that means faith has to be redefined. Well, I think there’s some exegetical problems there. I don’t think that fits with the context of Romans 4, and Romans 3. That would seem to go directly against what Paul stressed in Romans, chapter 3, where he has gone to great lengths to say the only reason God can be just and the justifier is because your justification has nothing to do with yourself, it’s entirely on the basis of what Christ has done. In theology we would say that the work of Christ is the grounds of justification, not faith itself. In other words, the ground of our justification isn’t something subjective in us, as important as that may be; rather, it’s something objective, something historical, something that Christ has accomplished. Paul is stressing that in Romans 3. So by the time you come to Romans 4, to read that passage as if he is saying faith is the grounds, well.
It would be a remarkable turn, wouldn’t it?
Yes. Paul would be schizophrenic, I suppose. (Laughing)
Instead, I think what Paul is trying to stress there, and other New Testament scholars may be able to articulate this better than I can right now, but I think what he is trying to stress there is that faith is essential, here. It’s so essential that Paul can speak of it as if we are counted righteous by faith, itself. I don’t think he means your faith, now, is turned into some type of work. I think what he is stressing there is it’s by faith, alone, that it’s only through faith. That it’s not by works at all, it’s only through faith that you can actually receive this right standing with God. Of course, that raises the question, which supports that type of reason, well, faith in what, exactly? This isn’t like we are just holding on and claiming to our own decision-making ability. No, faith is receptive. It’s faith in another. This is why the Reformers would talk about alien righteousness. It’s not our own righteousness, it’s external to us, it’s alien to us, it’s found in Christ not in us. But, at the same time, of course, as Paul is stressing here in Romans 4, the only way that we receive that alien righteousness is by faith. Paul as he is painting with a very broad brush, he can then contrast faith and works. They almost become two categories. You’re either justified by faith or you’re justified by works. So, while Paul is not saying faith itself becomes a work, he is saying it’s faith, alone, that results in your justification.
I think John Piper in one of his books on justification argues it well there, also, where he concludes that faith imputed and righteousness imputed are equivalent expressions.
How is justification related to Christ’s resurrection?
This is a chapter that I’ve been wanting to write for some time. In the past I’ve written things here and there about the resurrection of Christ. I remember years ago when I was pastoring full time, it really dawned on me that as a church we were only celebrating the resurrection of Christ when Easter came around. I realized that actually the resurrection is not just a one-time doctrine. If you look at the New Testament, this is essential to everything they say, no matter what they’re talking about. Maybe it’s the future resurrection, maybe it’s sanctification, maybe it’s regeneration, maybe it’s justification, it comes up everywhere. I’ve also found that for a lot of Christians, when they talk about justification they just go to the Cross. Which is right. They connect the dots from what Jesus is done at the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins to, then, why I am forgiven. And that’s right. However, we can’t just stop there. If we stop there, we’ve really missed out on the rest of the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t just a crucified Christ, it’s a crucified and risen Christ.
Now, one of the ways we see this come through, and maybe this will help connect the dots between the resurrection and justification, is when we think about what Christ did at the Cross, we could ask the question, how do we know that it is effective? How do we know that the Father accepts the Son’s work, the very mission that he gave to the Son. How do we know that it’s effective, it’s accepted, it actually accomplished what the triune God set out to accomplish? How do we know that? Well, the only way we know is by the resurrection. Because if you think back to the baptism of Christ at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, there Jesus is baptized, he is plunged into the water, he is very much representing Israel. He’s not baptized for his own sin, he is baptized in a very symbolic sense for Israel’s sake. He is indicating that he is now going to embark on this mission as the true Israel. Well, as he comes up out of the waters, he receives the Fathers blessing, his confirmation that this is the Son with whom he is pleased, and then the Spirit descends on him.
Well, the other bookend of that is the resurrection. How do we know that Jesus is truly satisfied the wrath of God for us? Well, the resurrection is essentially the Father saying, “this is my Son with whom I am well pleased, and his work is finished.” It is finished; and it’s not only finished, it’s effective. So, the Father raising Jesus from the dead is a visible indication to the whole world that what the Son set out to accomplish for the forgiveness of sins, it is secure. Which means what Paul, then, can say, Christ is raised for our justification. If Christ stays in the grave, the Father would essentially be saying it’s not enough, is not effective, he’s not satisfied. What would that mean? It would mean, as Paul says to the Corinthians, you are still in your sins. If Christ has not been raised, you still stand guilty. Your sins have not been atoned for. So, by raising Christ from the dead he is essentially saying it’s effective, your sins have been atoned for. What’s the proof of this? Christ is alive, Christ is risen.
That has untold consequences for the doctrine of justification because we tend to think, and rightly so, we tend to think of justification as a legal declaration, but so is the resurrection. This, too, is a declaration that if Christ is victorious, if Christ has atoned for our sins, if Christ is risen, the very fact that he is risen, that is a declaration that those who are in Christ Jesus, they, too, enjoy all the benefits of that resurrection life. Sometimes theologians have also liked to say that Christ’s resurrection is not only our justification, it’s his justification. It’s his vindication that his work has not fallen flat, but he’s been vindicated. He, himself, has been justified. We don’t mean that Christ himself is a sinner and needs justification; what we mean is his own work has been justified for us. So, there’s a type of vindication that takes place in the resurrection itself; and that, then, secures everything that follows in our right standing with God, our union with Christ.
So, if Jesus’ resurrection is his vindication or his justification, then we participate in his justification in union with him, not only in his death, but in his resurrection.
That’s exactly right. And when it comes to our right standing with God, where is our confidence? Rightly, we go to the Cross, and it’s there that we see that our sins are atoned for. That’s part of the basis of our justification. But if I were to ask, how do you know you are justified in God’s sight? Well, it’s not just the Cross, it’s the resurrection. It’s faith in the risen Christ, so that in his vindication we, too, celebrate. Because we know, I’m in Christ, I, too, am vindicated, not because of anything I’ve done, but because my Savior not only died, he rose for me, as well. All that to say when we talk about the work of Christ, we have to think of it holistically. Christ not only died for us, but he rose for us, as well. And I think, as Christians, we miss this, today. I don’t know why, but for a variety of reasons, we miss this. We tend to think of the resurrection as sort of just the icing on the cake. Maybe it’s good for apologetic reasons, but we don’t really think of the resurrection through a theological lens that without this resurrection, not only is the person of Christ discredited but everything from justification to sanctification to glorification – all of that suddenly has no credibility, has no grounding.
How is justification related to our union with Christ? You mentioned it in a previous interview as being somewhat contested.
Yes, it is a contested issue. I think if you want a full treatment of this, but still very concise, David VanDrunen’s chapter on this, called A Contested Union: Union with Christ and the Justification Debate is an excellent chapter. I think it’s only about twenty pages, so he’ll give you a very quick but concise, precise synopsis.
How are the two related? Well, let me begin this way. Union with Christ – it can be tempting to think that union with Christ is a specific point in the order of salvation. So when we talk about salvation we can talk about the order of salvation, how we are redeemed, from regeneration and effectual calling to conversion, to justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, glorification. And so, it can be tempting to say, well, certainly union with Christ must, like the others, fall into place. Actually, I think union with Christ is broader than that. It tends to be used in Scripture as more of what I would call an umbrella concept, so that it can be placed above and around all of those aspects. It sort of frames the entire order of salvation so that whether you’re talking about effectual calling or glorification, from beginning to end, it’s all situated in relationship to our union with Jesus Christ. Now, that being said, I do think that there is a unique relationship between union with Christ and justification. Some have been hesitant to go this route, somewhat to say that in terms of union with Christ and the order of salvation, whether it’s justification or sanctification, there’s no particular order. One is not the cause of the other, they are just sort of separate entities that tie into our union with Christ. I actually don’t think that’s specific enough. I think Scripture actually says more than that. And it has to do with the nature of justification, itself.
We kind of hinted at this earlier when we talked about the relationship between justification and sanctification. I don’t think that these are randomly ordered as if the two have no relationship to one another. As if we can just speak in generic language of, well, they both relate to union with Christ. Actually, I would argue that justification is foundational. We could even, we want to be careful how we push our language here, but we could even say it is a type of cause for sanctification. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s our legal standing in Christ Jesus that is foundational for the Spirit’s work to sanctify us in conformity with the image of Christ. If we reverse those two things, I think we have problems. If we reverse those two things or say they are not related, all of a sudden we’ve made an internal work, even a subjective work, something that’s preliminary or even has priority over our right standing with God. But Scripture doesn’t seem to speak that way. It seems to go the other direction to say, until your status is dealt with, until your guilt is addressed, then talking about conformity or internal moral renewal, that you can’t make sense of that. And then there’s the danger that that, then, becomes in some way, the grounds of our justification or even our union with Christ.
So, all that to say I do think both justification and sanctification are in Christ. Nevertheless, I think that there’s been a stream in the Reformed tradition that’s right to stress that this legal basis is foundational for sanctification. We could even say sanctification is the fruit of what happens in justification. Now, of course, in time, we experience things quickly; so I’m not trying to say let’s divorce these from one another and parse them out. In time, it seems as if everything just starts to happen at once. However, in theology, we like to be careful with being precise and distinguishing. So, logically speaking, I think that that legal declaration that we are in Christ Jesus on the basis of his forensic work, becomes the very engine that drives what it means to be conformed into the image of this same Christ.
We’re talking to Dr. Matthew Barrett, editor of, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. It really is a superb contribution to the study of this centrally important doctrine that you’ll not want to be without.
Matthew, thanks for talking to us again.
Buy the books
The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective