On Iron Sharpens Iron, Dr. Dewey Roberts speaks against the Federal Vision (FV). Much of what he says is quite right; I think the Federal Vision is largely poison, and Dewey points out why.
However, the fact that something is largely poison doesn’t mean that it is entirely poison. This fundamentalist-like assumption has produced a lot of dodgy dealings from Reformed folks, especially over the FV view of justification. For example, in the podcast (55:21) Dewey says,
Final justification is not Christian because it is indistinguishable from the view of the man on the street about salvation; i.e., try your best to live well, and trust God to honor that. He goes on to say that any kind of final justification (even Piper’s thoroughly Reformed view [ John Piper, Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone? in Desiring God (September 2017).] ) is indistinguishable from justification by works.
But this is both a shameless misrepresentation of the FV view of final justification, and the very kind of unexacting, imprecise theology of which Dewey accuses (ex) Federal Visionist Doug Wilson later on the podcast (1:14:15). In fairness to Dewey, he is by no means alone; when John Piper wrote Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone? a large number of Reformed bloggers (primarily confessionalists) lost their minds. You only need to hit google for a minute to see the kind of breathless hand-wringing, finger-shaking, and general histrionics that goes on any time someone in the Reformed camp voices the opinion that works have something to do with how God judges us.
This wouldn’t be so bad if it reflected the Bible’s actual teaching. The trouble is, on this point the FV gets things right, but many Reformed folks would rather build a pyre of strawmen than refine their thinking beyond confessions that will be celebrating their 500-year anniversaries within my lifetime.
Take Dewey as an example. I assume he does not deny that there will be a final judgment in which God renders a verdict of not guilty (i.e., justified, vindicated) over everyone who is faithful to him. But this rendered verdict on the final day just is a final justification. So Dewey’s language is already very ambiguous; when he says “final justification” he means something much more than the words suggest. He is really wanting to say that the final justification, which he agrees does happen, is nothing more—is not in any way differently judged—than the initial justification we receive upon believing.
But to say this is to deny that the rendered verdict is in any sense on account of the life we have lived. If it is merely a restatement of that initial justification we received the moment we put out faith in Jesus, then nothing we do afterward has any bearing on it. The problem is that this runs aground directly on straightforward passages like Matthew 16:27; 25:34–40; Romans 2:6–7; Galatians 6:7-9; Proverbs 24:12—and, negatively, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:19–21; Ephesians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:9; Hebrews 12:14; Revelation 22:15. It is, ultimately, to remove any expectation of hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
A possible response would be to draw a distinction between verdict and sentence; but this seems to be merely a more confused version of the very distinction I explicitly uphold further down, between the grounds and instrument of justification, so it can hardly function as an objection to my view.
It seems to me that Dewey is stuck between a rock and a hard place of his own making. It is not the Bible which has created the “problem” of final justification for him; it is his own imprecise thinking about faith, imputation, and salvation generally.
The diachronic nature of faith
Dewey wants say that there is no distinction at all between the initial verdict at the moment of faith, and the final verdict on the last day. In the sense of what grounds the verdict, he is absolutely right—we have right standing before God only because we are united to his vindicated Son, and not because of anything we do at any point whatever to merit his favor.
Indeed, the verdict is not actually about us at all: it is about Jesus. The final judgment is not a judgment of whether we are righteous or unrighteous in the absolute sense, but rather of whether we are represented by Jesus or representing ourselves. We are represented by Jesus when we commit ourselves to loyally trust him—whether that commitment lasts a single second, or a hundred years. Our representation by Jesus is identical at the moment we exercise faith, and the moment we stand before him after a life of faith.
But NB: the life of faith—the life of loyal trust—is not irrelevant to the final verdict, because it is faith which unites us to Jesus in the first place!
It seems to me that perhaps people like Dewey are afraid that affirming the place of works in final justification is affirming that works ground our justification. Their thinking goes something like this: Since justification is all or nothing and cannot be lost (John 6:44 etc), and you’re justified at the moment of belief, there’s therefore nothing you need (or indeed can) add after that point. The verdict at that moment is “not guilty.” So if you need to add works to keep that verdict as “not guilty” when the final judgment comes, then the final verdict must be on a different basis than the original one—so you’re actually teaching justification by works.
Or, as one Reformed pastor put it to me on the basis of Romans 5:1,
justification happens once and for all by faith in Christ. There are not multiple stages to justification. It happens once and for all by faith … If works are necessary in order to attain or even maintain salvation, then you’re not really saved.
But this is simply confused. Any Reformed thinker—any Christian at all—would agree that in fact you do need to do something to remain justified: namely, you must continue exercising faith. While this is a condition that a regenerate person ultimately cannot fail to meet, justification is nonetheless conditional on faith. God’s verdict is always on account of our faith, but faith is not (typically) a one-time, synchronic act; it is an across-time diachronic one. True—if we were to die the instant we exercised faith, then God’s verdict would be on account of that (synchronic) faith. But as a rule, we die after a life of faith, and so God’s verdict is on account of that (diachronic) faith.
Either way, it’s on account of our faith. But faith looks different as a one-time act than it does when it extends to exist across time.
So the first mistake Dewey (and others like him) make is treating faith as synchronic. It’s like they can’t conceive of a diachronic existence to faith. I strongly suspect this is because it won’t fit into their view of imputation itself. Because they see justification as involving a one-time and irrevocable “legal transfer” of works—Jesus’ for ours—they have to see faith as a commensurate one-time and irrevocable act.
But as FV theologian Rich Lusk notes, while the idea behind imputation is certainly true, the transfer itself is not of works between people, but of people between rulers or kingdoms (Colossians 1:13–14). While it is not wrong to speak of imputation, the devil is in the details—and there is an increasingly broad stream of Reformed theology, of which I think John Owen is the fountainhead, which fundamentally bungles how it works. It is not imputation that makes us right with God, per se, but rather union with Jesus. I agree with Lusk’s contention that, following the likes of Luther, Calvin and Edwards, we should speak less of imputation (a forensic category) and rather focus on incorporation (a covenantal category).
Christ’s righteousness becomes ours not by legal transfer, but by covenantal union. This union includes a legal/forensic component, but much else besides. [ Rich Lusk, A reply to “The OPC Justification Report” on union and imputation (June 2006), 7.]
I think many Reformed theologians have lost sight of the fact that justification and imputation are both grounded in union with Jesus. We are imputed as righteous, with all the blessings that flow from this, only as we are incorporated into our covenant head, and he into us. In the language of Scripture, we receive what is his when he dwells in us and we dwell in him:
Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. John 14:19–21; cf. John 15:4–7
The worky nature of faith
Notice the importance of obedience in John; it is not incidental to faith. This leads us to the second mistake of Dewey and his ilk. Building on the foundation of synchronic faith, they treat faith itself as completely internal; as a mere matter of the heart, rather than the body; as if works were utterly separate from it, and could never be a part of it. But this is an emaciated, unbiblical view completely repudiated throughout Scripture. We share in the verdict God pronounces over his Son by abiding in him, and he in us.
Now, this abiding is certainly his initiative, not ours—he starts it by indwelling us with his Spirit (John 3:8; 1 Corinthians 2:10–16; 1 John 4:13; Romans 8:9–10), so that before we can do anything of our own, we must first passively be drawn by, taught by, receive and belong to his Spirit (John 1:12–13; 6:44–45; Romans 8:9–10). Only then can we come to him.
But we do have to come. Faith is not purely passive. It is passive in receiving Jesus (Romans 4:5), but it is active in abiding in Jesus.
This is why we are commanded to abide in him—it is something we must actively do (John 15:4; 1 John 2:28). As we have received Anointed Jesus the Lord, so we must walk in him (Colossians 2:6). And we do this, walking in him and abiding in him, by keeping his commandments (1 John 2:6; John 8:31). Indeed, we know that we abide in him, and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit (1 John 4:13)—but we know that he has given us his Spirit and abides in us because we keep his commandments (1 John 3:24)!
Put succinctly, we cannot work to receive Jesus (Philippians 3:9), but we must work to abide in Jesus (Philippians 3:12). Hence Turretin—whose Reformed bona fides are surely beyond any doubt—compares good works to eternal life as sowing to reaping:
Good works are required as the means and way for possessing salvation … Although works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it so that no one can be saved without them … Although God by his special grace wishes these duties of man to be his blessings (which he carries out in them), still the believer does not cease to be bound to observe it, if he wishes to be a partaker of the blessings of the covenant … For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the way to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the sowing to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8); of the firstfruits to the mass (Rom. 8:23); of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the contest to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27). [ Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume II (17.3.3, 4, 7, 12).]
Rich Lusk also makes an awful lot of sense on this topic:
Justification is best understood in terms of comprehensive union with Christ: God decreed our justification when he chose us in Christ, from before the foundation of the world. Our justification was accomplished and declared in history in the resurrection of Christ. We actually come to share in Christ’s justification when the Spirit works faith in us, uniting us to Christ. And our justification is consummated and concluded at the final judgment, when our whole lives in Christ receive God’s righteous verdict. Justification for the Christian must be viewed in terms of ongoing participation in the life of the justified Christ, through faith and the work of the Spirit. In this sense, we can follow Calvin and speak of our continual reception of justification as we abide in Christ. Justification is not a stand-alone doctrine, but an aspect of our union with Christ. [ Rich Lusk, Did Jesus Earn Our Salvation? Merit, Imputation, and the Resurrection of Christ in Lecture notes for Christ Church Ministerial Conference 2005: Justification: the Great Deliverance, 22. Emphasis mine.]
Normal (diachronic) faith involves a life of trusting loyalty, because saving faith is trusting loyalty. Normal (diachronic) faith involves a life of working to obey God’s commandments, because saving faith is a working faith (Galatians 5:6; James 2:18–22). Works are part of diachronic faith, which is why James can even say that they justify (James 2:21).
To give an analogy, one does not need to do anything for a woman, in order to love her at first sight (synchronic); but if the initial love is genuine, one will certainly do things for her over time (diachronic), because love involves commitment, sacrifice, affection, etc. If you are never committing, sacrificing, or showing affection, then you are simply not loving her. If Jacob had refused to work for Rachel, how seriously would we take his assertion of love for her? In the same way, faith involves obedience, trust, loyalty, etc. If you are never being obedient, trusting, or loyal, then you are simply not “faithing” God. You cannot be inwardly obedient, trusting and loyal while outwardly breaking God’s law, expressing mistrust, and going after other gods (e.g., cf. Philippians 3:19).
But by the same token, if you are being obedient, trusting and loyal, then that just is faithing God.
It doesn’t mean you’re working to earn your righteousness. It means you’re working to abide in Jesus, who is your righteousness. You know, the way the Bible repeatedly commands you to.
It bothers me that so many Reformed theologians are so spooked by the specter of works-righteousness that they aren’t able to accurately assess or truthfully represent a position that the Bible perspicuously teaches. Is what I’ve articulated above anything like the view of unregenerate people about how they will “enter heaven,” as Dewey puts it? Of course not. Is it anything like works righteousness? Of course not. Indeed, it is not this view that is dangerous to people’s souls—it is the view that says (and again, I quote),
If works are necessary in order to attain or even maintain salvation, then you’re not really saved.
To which Paul, having just explained how he counts everything skubalon in order to receive the righteousness of Jesus by faith, nonetheless replies that he attains to the resurrection of the dead by any means possible (Philippians 3:11). He has not yet obtained it, but presses on to make it his own, straining forward, pressing toward the goal for the prize, since Anointed Jesus has made Paul his own (Philippians 3:12–14).
That’s how Paul faithed God. I’ll follow his example (Philippians 3:17) over Dewey’s any day, and twice on Sundays.