John Calvin

Justification by faith alone in the light of recent thought


Philip Eveson
Kent, England: Day One Publications, 1996
227 pages, paperback, £7.99

With the most recent arrival of "The Gift of Salvation," the second document of its kind to appear on the ecumenical scene, The Great Exchange seems almost prophetic. In the past couple of years, the issue of Sola Fide, which was the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation has reappeared with a renewed enthusiasm, but with a new "twist." Instead of two polemical forces pitted against each other, Protestantism versus Roman Catholicism, each defending their hallowed ground in heated debates, our day is witnessing these same two forces engaging in irenic dialogue with the end of reaching a mutually acceptable statement of the doctrine of Justification by Faith.

Many in mainstream Evangelicalism have lauded these efforts and the two documents which have ensued from these dialogues. One wonders if the end of the "war" is actually a plausible reality. A question which must be asked of every professing Christian is, "What will become of the doctrine of Sola Fide?" As Protestants, we must all strive within our own individual God-given abilities, to come to a reasonable understanding of the fundamental question, "What is Sola Fide?" The Great Exchange will greatly aid in answering that question.

In the Introduction Philip Eveson writes:

In many Christian circles today, the term justification is often avoided. It is thought to be too difficult or old-fashioned. Yet the word is frequently used in everyday speech. We may ask, for instance, 'What justification do you have for saying that?' Then, again, in the world of word processors justification is a familiar expression in reference to aligning texts. The end result is that people are computer literate but ignorant of its Christian usage and significance in the contexts of the gospel's message.

The rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation—'justification by faith alone'—means nothing to the present generation. What was of great importance to many from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries at all levels of society is now of mere academic interest.

In four succinct sections titled: Part one: The Biblical Evidence, Part Two: Evangelicals and Rome, Part Three: Modern Revision, Part Four: Justification Today, the author sets forth the doctrine of Sola Fide in a precise and cogent fashion.

In Part One, Eveson is meticulous in his examination of some of the most relevant passages which speak of justification. He shows that this doctrine is not isolated to the writings of the apostle Paul, but in fact permeates the entire Bible; Old Testament and New Testament alike. It is here, in this first part that he lays the foundation for a proper understanding of the Bible's teaching concerning justification. The point is driven home, time after time, that justification is inextricably bound up within the milieu of the "law court." In other words, justification is a forensic term and must be if God would be "just and the justifier" of sinners. To misunderstand the doctrine at this point, we are left with nothing but our own fruitless attempts to become right before God. Personally, I found the word studies in this section to be worth the price of the book alone.

The second part, Evangelicals and Rome, we are given a brief but compact excursion through the history of the doctrine of justification by faith. One will be impressed with how this doctrine permeated the life of the Protestant Church not only in the various "official" confessions, but even in the hymnody of the churches. The love and fervor which our forebears expressed this once cherished doctrine exposes the stark contrast of our apathy and ignorance of it today. I could not but wonder what had happened that has brought us to our present pitiable state. Bringing us up to fairly recent times, Eveson examines the position of Rome in comparing Trent with Vatican II and the New Catholic Encyclopedia. He ends this section with a look at "Justification and Unity."

Part Three: Modern Revision, focuses primarily on the attempt of Dr. N.T. Wright to bring new insights to our understanding of justification. Some readers may find this section tough going. However, if what Eveson laid out in the first section took hold, what is written here will be much less intimidating. Be that as it may, this third section demands one's full attention, for contending with Wright's thesis is not unlike being confronted with the "slippery" movements of a professional boxer. Unfortunately for Wright, his "bob and weave" is effectively avoided, and Eveson delivers a "knockout punch", by exposing the subtly of his errors. For example, in the discussion of Wright's claim that justification is more "relational than judicial", and what Eveson considers the most subtle of all the dangers, he writes:

At a time when the forensic or judicial dimension is increasingly being dismissed as medieval we need to be on our guard. There is not only a broken relationship, but a broken law and a new legal position where God is now the Judge and all humanity face him as guilty, condemned sinners. . . .

The biblical truths concerning God's punishment of sinners and the reality of hell emphasizes the judicial in a very glaring and awesome way... Justification has to do with the removal of God's wrath which hangs over us and our being constituted righteous in His sight. All of which takes place in Christ our representative and substitute who kept the law on our behalf and was punished in our place and thus we are pronounced by the divine Judge to be in a right legal position before Him. (p. 150)

In the last part, Eveson concentrates on the significance of "Getting it Right." Again he shows us the tragic results where the doctrine of justification is "revised, widened, marginalized or denied." He reminds us that our controversies with Rome are not be to seen as the sole threat but that in fact within Protestantism itself, there arose two prominent factions which had devastating effects, even to this very day. The first is to be seen not long after the Reformation had taken root, in the objections presented by the followers of Jacobus Arminius to the great Synod of Dort (1618-19). For them, "Faith, as obedience to the gospel and allegiance to Christ, was seen as God's new law which is counted for righteousness." The second major and negative influence came from the views of the Puritan minister Richard Baxter (1615-1691). After giving a brief description of Baxter's departure from the Reformation doctrine of justification and that which he substituted for it, he speaks of the effects which are present with us today:

Sin tends to be externalized with the result that the indwelling power of personal sin is underestimated. Faith as allegiance to Christ and the ground of justification is not dissimilar to the modern notion of faith as belief and commitment, a badge on the basis of which a person is declared to be justified. The cross becomes of peripheral importance; the wrath of God is no longer viewed as His settled opposition to human rebellion and an expression of His eternal and unchangeable holy nature. Like Baxter's scheme the modern revision rejects the imputation of Christ's righteous life. (p.169)

Concluding this first section in Part 4, Eveson writes:

It is often said that we are not called to believe a doctrine in order to be saved, but a Person. Surprisingly, Packer uses this argument in his support for grassroots collaboration with Roman Catholics in ministry. 'What brings salvation, after all, is not any theory about faith in Christ, justification, and the church, but faith itself in Christ himself.'

We thoroughly agree that faith is directed toward Christ himself and not to any statement about him. However, the link must never be severed between the Person and the truth revealed about him in Scripture. We would not know anything about the Lord Jesus were it not for the Bible. . . . Going a step further, we must say that, while it is perfectly possible to be saved through believing in Jesus Christ without having actually heard of the doctrine of justification, nevertheless the Saviour we are called to trust is the One revealed in the Bible whose blood and righteousness alone put us right with God. (p. 178)

Finally, in bringing all that was said to a fitting end, Eveson gives us the Gospel itself. I think you will find his presentation quite moving, as he effectively displays the wonder of God's marvelous grace in the giving of Christ for needy sinners. Defining justification in all that it entails Eveson says:

Justification is a legal pronouncement made by God in the present, prior to the day of judgment, declaring sinners to be not guilty and therefore to be acquitted, by pardoning all their sins and reckoning them to be righteous in his sight, on the basis of Christ, their representative and substitute, whose righteousness in life and death is put to their account when in self-despairing trust they look to him alone for salvation. (p. 193)

This is a book that should be read by all. The issue of the Scriptural doctrine of Justification by Faith, Alone is too important to leave in the hands of a few, who would redefine it for the sake of unity, and thereby divest it of its power to save sinners, (Rom 1:16). If there is to be unity among the churches, it must be a unity grounded in the affirmation of truth. Eveson agrees when he concludes:

For there to be fellowship between churches, a clear statement of belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, is essential. There can be no fellowship between churches where this doctrine is ignored, weakened or compromised. Merely to have a form of words that is agreeable to everyone is meaningless. How can there be cooperation in evangelism when the heart of the gospel, the message of justification, is left imprecise? How can people grow in grace when justification by faith alone is not preached and known? Happy the community of God's people where all are one in spirit and mind in confessing this wonderful gospel truth!

O for a thousand tongues to sing 
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and king,
The triumphs of His grace!

O For A Thousand Tongues.mid

Click the notes to hear the hymn

Look unto him, ye nations, own
your God, ye fallen race;
Look, and be saved through faith alone
Be justified by grace.

Jeffrey C. Nesbitt
The Highway

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