Justification and Adoption: Sermon excerpt from C.J. Mahaney

I want to point you to an excellent sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 by C.J. Mahaney, titled God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption. Here is one particularly helpful excerpt on the connection and distinctions between justification and adoption:

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cjmahaney.jpg… Notice God’s purpose was both to redeem and to adopt — “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (v. 5).

I’m sure you will agree that redeeming us from slavery to sin and the penalty of sin would have been sufficiently astounding. But God’s purpose did not conclude with redemption, it culminated with adoption. He made slaves into sons through the death of His Son. And here in this phrase, and this passage, we encounter the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love!

Now, historically in Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries, we have taught more on the doctrine of justification than we have on adoption. I don’t think we should ever teach less on the doctrine of justification. I do think we should teach more on the doctrine of adoption. Actually, the doctrine of justification must always remain primary because all saving benefits depend on justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. One can’t understand adoption apart from justification. Adoption depends on justification. Grasping justification positions us to fully appreciate adoption.

There are those who speak about the Fatherhood of God without reference to the Cross or the doctrine of justification. We cannot, we should not, and we must not, speak of the Fatherhood of God apart from the Cross and apart from the doctrine of justification.

So with those qualifying remarks let us distinguish between justification and adoption without separating justification and adoption. Let’s distinguish between them because they are not the same thing.

Understanding the differences is of critical importance to experiencing adoption. Dr. J.I. Packer helps us understand the difference and has written the following helpful remarks:

“That justification – by which we mean God’s forgiveness of the past, together with his acceptance for the future – is the primary and fundamental blessing of the gospel is not in question. Justification is the primary blessing, because it meets our primary spiritual need. We all stand by nature under God’s judgment; his law condemns us; guilt gnaws at us, making us restless, miserable, and in our lucid moments afraid; we have no peace in ourselves because we have no peace with our Maker. So we need the forgiveness of our sins, and assurance of a restored relationship with God, more than we need anything else in the world; and this the gospel offers us before it offers us anything else. … But contrast this, now, with adoption. Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater” [Knowing God, pp. 206, 207].

I love that last sentence – “To be right with God the Judge is a great thing.” I just want to say it is indeed “a great thing” to be right with God the Judge through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is “a great thing” to be forgiven of sin. It is “a great thing” to be freed from fear of future wrath. It is “a great thing” to know this day that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is “a great thing” to know that on the final day there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. To be right with God the Judge – that is “a great thing”!

But to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater. Now they are inseparable. There is no greater apart from the great. The great precedes the greater. But it’s possible to understand the great and not comprehend and live in the good of the greater.

And if you are right with God the Judge — through the person and work of Jesus Christ — let me just say that is a “great thing”! But as incomprehensible as it is, there is something greater. The greater is to be loved and cared for by God the Father. That’s the greater. This is part of Paul’s burden in this passage, that we not only experience the great (“redeemed”) but the greater (“adoption”).

Do the words closeness, affection, and generosity describe your perception and experience of God? Do they? If not, perhaps you are more aware of your sin than you are the adopting grace of God.

In order to experience more of the love of God, the affection of God, the closeness of God, the generosity of God, I want to recommend that for a season you study the doctrine of adoption until you are assured and secure in the love of God. If you are unfamiliar with the gift of adoption, I want to encourage you to restrict your spiritual diet (if necessary and for a season) to this topic so that you might experience the greatness of God’s love. If you are a Christian and you are not convinced of God’s love for you then I would recommend you confine yourself to this topic. Confine yourself to your study to this passage and other passages that reference adoption. Confine yourself for a season of time to the study of the doctrine of adoption. Immerse yourself in extended study.

— C.J. Mahaney, sermon, “God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption” (Dec. 2, 2007) 34:08-41:35.

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Shortly thereafter, C.J. recommended the following books for extended study:

I encourage you to listen to the full sermon audio here:

Or download the sermon MP3 here.

The Future of Justification by John Piper

Book review
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper

N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”

Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.

Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:

  • The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
  • Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
  • Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
  • We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
  • The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
  • Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
  • First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
  • God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)

Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.

As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).

Before engaging

But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).

Where Wright is right

Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).

Where Wright is wrong

The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!

Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).

Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.

Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:

“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.

Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).

Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).

I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.

‘Paralyzing perplexity’

The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.

“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).

Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).

And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.

“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).

Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).

A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.

“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).

Conclusion

It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.

Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.

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Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Boards: paperback
Pages: 239
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2007
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN
: 9781581349641, 1581349645

Hidden sin and Luther’s discovery of the Cross

tsslogo.jpg“In his struggles with penance and confession, he [Martin Luther the monk-scholar] wrestled with Psalm 19:12, ‘Clear thou me from hidden faults’ (ASV). Luther’s problem was never whether his sins were large ones or small ones, but whether in fact he had confessed every single one. What about the sins he could not remember? What about the sins committed in his sleep? Luther anticipated Freud by recognizing a depth-dimension to the human person and by refusing to limit the effects of sin to the conscious mind alone. Such a radical reading of the human situation could only be answered with an even more radical reading of divine grace. …

Luther’s new insight was that the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness was based, not on the gradual curing of sin, but rather on the complete victory of Christ on a cross. The once-for-allness of justification was emphasized: ‘If you believe, then you have it!’ Nor is there any direct correlation between the state of justification and one’s outward works, as Luther made clear in his sermon on the pharisee and the publican (1521): ‘And the Publican fulfills all the commandments of God on the spot. He was then and there made holy by grace alone. Who could have foreseen that, under this dirty fellow?’

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merit and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself.”

Timothy George essay on Luther in Reading Romans Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth (Brazos Press: 2005) pp. 115-116.

New Perspectives and the Cross

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Book announcement
The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ
by Cornelis P. Venema

A number of excellent responses to the challenges of the NP(s)P debate have been published in the past two years and more are expected this Fall. The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ by Cornelis P. Venema (Banner of Truth: 2006) is one example of a thorough response written for a broad readership. Venema (PhD. Princeton) currently serves as President and professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.

The first quarter of the book lays out the Reformed perspective on Paul (pp. 27-92), the second quarter lays out the new perspectives on Paul and the century-old roots behind the current NP theology (pp. 93-142). The second half is a critical assessment (pp. 143-307). In part, Venema concludes:

One of the most vexing features of the new perspective is its failure to explain the connection between the justification of believers and Christ’s atoning work. In the Reformation perspective on Paul, there is a close and intimate connection between Christ’s obedience, cross, and resurrection, and the benefit of free justification which believers derive from their union with him. Christ’s objective work on behalf of sinners (his death for their sins and his resurrection for their justification) constitutes the basis of the verdict which justification declares. Since the sinless Christ bore the sins of his people upon the cross and was declared righteous before God in his resurrection, believers now enjoy through union with him a new status of acceptance and life in fellowship with God. The righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel and received through faith, is demonstrated in God’s judgment upon sinners in the death of Christ and in God’s vindication of sinners in Christ’s resurrection.

In the Reformation perspective on justification, the revelation of God’s righteousness in the work of Christ provides a sure basis for the acceptance of sinners joined to him by faith. Justification is the subjective benefit granted to believers on account of the objective work of Christ on their behalf. The righteousness of God requires that sinners be set right before God. In order for this to occur, their sins must be atoned for and their righteousness established.

However, in the new perspective, no comparable account is provided of the intimate conjunction between Christ’s saving work and the believer’s justification. Justification merely identifies those who belong to the covenant family of God, but no adequate explanation is provided as to why this identification required nothing less than the cross and resurrection of Christ on their behalf. The new perspective offers no satisfactory account of Paul’s emphasis that believers are justified by the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:9) or through the redemption and propitiation he provided (Rom. 3:23). Nor does the new perspective’s explanation of the righteousness of God explain why Paul insists that, were righteousness to come through the law, Christ would have died in vain (Gal. 2:21).

The point of these observations is not to suggest that advocates of the new perspective have no doctrine of atonement or explanation of Christ’s representative death and resurrection. The point is that, unlike the Reformation perspective on Paul, the new perspective offers no coherent theological explanation of the interrelation between Christ’s work on behalf of his people on the one hand, and their enjoyment of the benefit of that work on the other.”

– Cornelis P. Venema in The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul (Banner of Truth: 2006) pp. 303-304 (emphasis is mine).

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Packer on Justification

tsslogo.jpg“Martin Luther described the doctrine of justification by faith as articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae — the article of faith that decides whether the church is standing or falling. By this he meant that when this doctrine is understood, believed, and preached, as it was in New Testament times, the church stands in the grace of God and is alive; but where it is neglected, overlaid, or denied, as it was in medieval Catholicism, the church falls from grace and its life drains away, leaving it in a state of darkness and death. The reason why the Reformation happened, and Protestant churches came into being, was that Luther and his fellow Reformers believed that Papal Rome had apostatized from the gospel so completely in this respect that no faithful Christian could with a good conscience continue within her ranks.

the doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas: it bears a world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace. The doctrines of election, of effectual calling, regeneration, and repentance, of adoption, of prayer, of the church, the ministry, and the sacraments, have all to be interpreted and understood in the light of justification by faith. Thus, the Bible teaches that God elected men in eternity in order that in due time they might be justified through faith in Christ. He renews their hearts under the Word, and draws them to Christ by effectual calling, in order that he might justify them upon their believing. Their adoption as God’s sons is consequent on their justification; indeed, it is no more than the positive aspect of God’s justifying sentence. Their practice of prayer, of daily repentance, and of good works — their whole life of faith — springs from the knowledge of God’s justifying grace. The church is to be thought of as the congregation of the faithful, the fellowship of justified sinners, and the preaching of the Word and ministry of the sacraments are to be understood as means of grace only in the sense that they are means through which God works the birth and growth of justifying faith. A right view of these things is not possible without a right understanding of justification; so that when justification falls, all true knowledge of the grace of God in human life falls with it, and then, as Luther said, the church itself falls.

A society like the Church of Rome, which is committed by its official creed to pervert the doctrine of justification, has sentenced itself to a distorted understanding of salvation at every point. Nor can these distortions ever be corrected till the Roman doctrine of justification is put right. And something similar happens when Protestants let the thought of justification drop out of their minds: the true knowledge of salvation drops out with it, and cannot be restored till the truth of justification is back in its proper place. When Atlas falls, everything that rested on his shoulders comes crashing down too.

How has it happened, then, we ask, that so vital a doctrine has come to be neglected in the way that it is today?

The answer is not far to seek. Just as Atlas, with his mighty load to carry, could not hover in mid-air, but needed firm ground to stand on, so does the doctrine of justification by faith. It rests on certain basic presuppositions, and cannot continue without them. Just as the church cannot stand without the gospel of justification, so that gospel cannot stand where its presuppositions are not granted. They are three: the divine authority of Holy Scripture, the divine wrath against human sin, and the substitutionary satisfaction of Christ. The church that loses its grip on these truths, loses its grip on the doctrine of justification, and to that extent on the gospel itself. And this is what has largely happened in Protestantism today.”

– J.I. Packer, from an introduction essay in the reprint of James Buchanan’s classic, The Doctrine of Justification (Banner of Truth: 1961 ed.). You can download a PDF version of Buchanan’s complete work (with Packer intro) here. Packer’s essay also appeared more recently in the Collected Shorter Writings of J.I. Packer (Paternoster: 1998), 1:137ff.

Justified in Christ by Scott Oliphint

“If our churches are going to be renewed and become what God has called them to be, then individual members of the church must be taught to build their lives on the foundation of the truth that they are justified before God by faith, not on the basis of their own performance, but by claiming the righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance. That means that they must see clearly the holiness of God, the depth of their sin, and the sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It is this doctrine of justification by faith through grace which must be embraced, not just at the beginning of the Christian life, but every day we live.”

– J. Stafford Carson in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, edited by K. Scott Oliphint (Christian Focus: 2007), p. 191.