Justified by Works, but Don’t Think of it That Way?

Run to Win the Prize, 2010, Crossway, Thomas R. Schreiner

This little book is from lectures given at Oak Hill in London. It’ s a summary of the thinking found in the book Schreiner wrote with Caneday, The Race Set Before Us (2001, IVP) Schreiner again engages in some special pleading for a “paradox” (p73) in which works are necessary but also for not focusing on works but Christ. How it’s possible to rationally live in that paradox is not so clear. I guess words like “premeditation” and “intention” and “byproduct” play a big part.

I would not say that Schreiner’s thesis comes from the “new perspective”. There’s no need to go to NT Wright, Norman Shepherd, or John Armstrong, to make his case. Rather, he goes to Jonathan Edwards against John Calvin to argue that works of faith are necessary for justification. In this respect, Schreiner is simply making popular a path already made by Dan Fuller in The Unity of the Bible (1992, Zondervan).

I quote from Unity (p181): “In commenting on Genesis 2:17 -do not eat from that tree–Calvin said, `These words are so far from establishing faith that they do nothing but shake it.’ I argue, however, that there is much reason for regarding these words as well suited to strengthen Adam and Eve’s faith…In Calvin’s thinking, the promise made in Genesis 2:17 could never encourage faith, for its conditionality could encourage only meritorious works. `Faith seeks life that is not found in commandments.’ Consequently, the gospel by which we are saved is an unconditional covenant of grace, made such by Christ having merited it for us by his perfect fulfillment of the covenant of works. Dan Fuller comments: “I have yet to find anywhere in Scripture a gospel promise that is unconditional.”

More from Unity (p310): “If Abraham was not declared forgiven until ten years later, was he still a guilty sinner when he responded positively to God’s promises in Genesis 12:2-3 and also during the following years up until 15:6?” “Calvin gave a meaning to James’s use of the word justification which is not supported by the text…He argued that for James, `justify’ meant the `declaration’ rather than the `imputation’ of righteousness.”

Calvin (3:17:12): “Either James inverted faith and obedience–unlawful even to imagine–or he did not mean to call him justified, as if Abraham deserved to be reckoned righteous. What then? Surely, it is clear that he himself is speaking of the declaration, not the imputation, of righteousness.”

Back to Fuller (p313): “Paul would have agreed with James that Abraham’s work of preparing to sacrifice Isaac was an obedience of faith. He would have disagreed strongly with Calvin, who saw obedience and works as only accompanying genuine faith…James’ s concern in 2:14-26 was to urge a faith that saves a person, not simply to tell a person how they could demonstrate their saving faith…Calvin should have taught that justification depends on a persevering faith, since he regarded Abraham as already justified before Genesis 15:6.”
And then Fuller quotes Edwards: “We are really saved by perseverance…the perseverance which belongs to faith is one thing that is really a fundamental ground of the congruity that faith gives to salvation…For, though a sinner is justified in his first act of faith, yet even then, in that act of justification, God has respect to perseverance as being implied in the first act.” For more from Edwards, see Schreiner’s new little book (p20, 70, 92).

Rob Zins, who wrote his masters on Shepherd’s view of Justification, writes about James in his book on Romanism (2002, p184): “The best we can do with James 2 is to say that Abraham was `shown to be just’ by offering Isaac up on the altar. It may be stretching things too far to say that Abraham was `shown to have been justified’ when he offered Isaac. One can be called righteous without being declared justified by God…Certainly there is a demonstration here, but it is a demonstration of faith rather than a demonstration of righteousness.”

Zins writes on p189 about Romans 2: “It is difficult to grasp how Paul could be speaking hypothetically. Paul rather seems to be making direct statements of reality. .. The question revolves around whether God gives eternal life `because’ of good works or `in accordance with good works’. ” And then on p192, Zins concludes: “both James and Paul do not hesitate to apply the word `justification’ when God approves a sinner on the basis of good works…Yet these justification notifications stem from a previous justification by imputation…The blood of Christ had to be applied to Abraham for his justification despite both his faith and the completion of his faith by his good works.” And then Zins quotes favorably ( p196) the conclusion of Jonathan Edwards about God considering from the first the future works of faith of the believers.

I have been trying to set the Schreiner book in a context, but in doing that, I have written more about Dan Fuller, Rob Zins, Jonathan Edwards, and John Calvin, than I have about Schriener’s exegesis or about the psychology of making assurance depend on present working without at the same time depending on present working. Now, I am going to compound the strangeness of this review, by closing with a quotation from Fesko’s excellent new book on Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (2008, P and R). This time it’s not Dan Fuller against the later Luther, but Fesko against the later Richard Gaffin (even though he supports Shepherd, Gaffin should not to be confused with Shepherd. See my review of Gaffin’s By Faith, Not by Sight, another Oak Hill lecture.)

Fesko writes on p 315: “Gaffin tries to argue that works are not the ground of judgment. `It is not for nothing, I take it, and not to be dismissed as an overly fine exegesis to observe that, in Romans 2:6, Paul writes “according to works” and not “on account of works”… Gaffin’s point is that `in accordance with works’ are synechdochial for faith in Christ. (Ridderbos; Paul: Outline, 178-181; also Murray; Romans, 78).”

Fesko responds: “Can such a fine distinction be supported by the grammar alone…What difference exists between the two? `Corresponding to’ is common in reference to the precise and impartial standard of judgment that will be applied on the great Day. Gaffin and Venema fail to account for judgment according to works for the wicked….According to Gaffin’s interpretation, are the wicked judged according to their works, but the works are not the ground of their condemnation? Romans 4:4–“now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as WHAT IS DUE.”

Surely there are many unanswered questions. If the non-elect are condemned ON ACCOUNT OF THEIR WORKS, how do the elect live with the notion that works of faith are necessary for their justification? I will say the one simple thing I keep on saying: God does not count faith as the righteousness. Neither the initial act of faith nor the continuing acts of faith are the basis of justification. God counts the righteousness of Christ earned for the elect alone as the righteousness. The elect have legal union with Christ’s obedience to death for the elect. The elect come to share in this righteousness by legal imputation. The righteousness credited ( a free gift received, Romans 5:17) results in the justification of elect. But you cannot have faith ( beginning or continuing) in this righteousness if you have not yet heard and understood and assented to what the gospel reveals about election.

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11 Comments on “Justified by Works, but Don’t Think of it That Way?”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    By Faith Not By Sight (Oakhill School of Theology Series) (

    Gaffin’s thesis is that there is a future aspect to the justification of an individual sinner. His assumption is that it is faith (not election) which unites a sinner to Christ and thus to the benefits/power to do the works necessary for future justification.

    It is God who gives the faith; it is God who gives the works; therefore it seems right to him to condition justification on the faith and works of the sinner. Gaffin does not tell us what gospel must be the object of the faith which unites to Christ. Nor does he tell us how imperfect works would have to be to miss justification and be condemned.

    Gaffin: “Typically in the Reformation tradition the hope of salvation is expressed in terms of Christ’s righteousness, especially as imputed to the believer…however, I have to wonder if ‘Christ in you’ is not more prominent as an expression of evangelical hope…” p110 Gaffin of course wants to say both things as his hope. Part of his hope is sanctification defined as something other than justification from sin, but as power over against sin despite our “incomplete progress, flawed by our continued sinning”.

    Gaffin says many good and right things about imputation. For example, on p51, he lists 3 options for the ground of justification. A. Christ’s own righteousness, complete and finished in his obedience…B. the union itself, the fact of the relationship with Christ…c. the obedience being produced by the transforming Spirit in those in union. Gaffin rightly concludes that “the current readiness to dispense with imputation” results from taking the last two options as the ground of justification.

    But Gaffin always has a but, a not yet. Though we are justified now (because faith in something, even Arminianism, unites us now to Jesus), Gaffin still teaches a justification by sight, ie by works. Instead of reading the “according to works” texts as having to do with the distinction between dead works (Hebrews 6:1,9:14) and “fruit for God” (Romans 7:4), Gaffin conditions assurance in future justification on imperfect but habitual working.

    Instead of saying that works motivated by fear of missing justification are unacceptable to God, Gaffin teaches a justification which is contingent on faith and works.

    Gaffin follows his mentors John Murray and Norman Shepherd in taking Romans 2:13 to be describing Christians. The hope for future justification is not Christ’s death, resurrection, and intercession alone: challenging any law-gospel antithesis, Gaffin teaches an “unbreakable bond between justification and sanctification” in the matter of aasurance and hope for future justification. (p100)

    Yes, faith (in which gospel?) is the alone instrument, he agrees, yes his finished righteousness is the alone ground, he affirms, but at the same time and however, works factor in also. Just remember that these works which factor into your assurance come from God working in you and not from you.

    I recommend the reading of this book, so that critics of Gaffin will not make the mistake of identifying him with N.T. Wright who denies imputation. I agree with Gaffin that the gospel is not only about what Christ did outside of the elect for the elect; the gospel is also about the effectual call which results from election in Christ and Christ’s work for those elect in Him (and by Him).

    One evidence of effectual calling is that the justified elect do not put their assurance in their “bearing fruit for God”. To work for assurance of future justification is to “bear fruit for death”. Romans 7:5

  2. markmcculley Says:

    The fruit of infralapsarianism? Richard Gaffin, by Faith not by Sight, p 103–“The law-gospel antithesis enters not by virtue of creation but as the consequence of sin…The gospel is to the purpose of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer…With the gospel and in Christ, united to him, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend.”

  3. MARK MCCULLEY Says:

    Horton: The classification of “unconditional” and “conditional” covenants isn’t helpful, they argue, because there are elements of each in every biblical covenant.However, their argument assumes that the mere presence of commands indicates a mixture of unconditional-conditional aspects in the basis of the covenant itself. At this point, Reformed theology has traditionally appealed to a distinction between basis and administration. The mere presence of commands says nothing about the basis of a covenant itself.

    mark: so far, so good, Tullian got this from Horton–commands don’t make things conditional But Horton does bring back conditionality

    Horton: Concerning covenant theologians, Wellum, “Ironically, however, they agree with the Arminian exegesis and conclusion as applied to full covenant members who are not elect” (75). This isn’t quite accurate. We hasten to add the qualification in verse 9: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” (v. 9). The writer does not know for certain that each and every member of the new covenant is justified, but exercises charity since they are not among the open apostates. A Baptist interpretation cannot account for this category of covenant beneficiaries who spurn the objective blessings delivered to them and fall away, while an Arminian interpretation cannot account for the distinction of this group from those who were in fact united to Christ.

    mark: but this simply assumes that there are non-justified members in the new covenant, which is the thing to be proven, but Horton assumes it because he assumes straight continuity with Abraham (as if all discontinuity was with Moses, but Abraham himself had two sons)

    Horton: jewish branches that didn’t yield faith were broken off to make room for living Gentile branches that share the faith of Abraham in Christ. And yet he adds, “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (vv. 16b-21). The whole tree is holy, but dead branches will be pruned. The whole church of Corinth is addressed as “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2). And yet, among that very number are members he will later upbraid them for not excommunicating!
    mark: thus Horton teaches that members of the new covenant lose their sanctification and their membership, because it’s all conditioned on faith

    and then Horton becomes quite open in his conditionality, as much as Kline or Piper or Schreiner: To be claimed as part of God’s holy field comes with threats as well as blessings. Covenant members who do not believe are under the covenant curse. How can they fall under the curses of a covenant to which they didn’t belong? If faith is the only way into membership (693), then why all the warnings to members of the covenant community to exercise faith and persevere in faith to the end?

    Horton: God promises his saving grace in Christ to each person in baptism, whether they embrace this promise or not. Yet they must embrace the promise in faith. Otherwise, they fall under the covenant curse without Christ as their mediator. The word proclaimed and sealed in the sacraments is valid, regardless of our response, but we don’t enjoy the blessings apart from receiving Christ

  4. markmcculley Says:

    ‘because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth’ (3:16).

    mark: and what God says to a corporate people, he says to any individual, so it’s not that any assurance is presumption but rather that any assurance based on Christ’s death alone or “did you hear and agree” is not valid, because the only valid assurance is “what did you do”? today? and tomorrow? and next week?

    Jesus did not bear the curse which comes the warnings, which means there’s still some curse left for those in the covenant , In theory, there is no curse for those in Christ Jesus, but in practical reality, you have to obey the warnings or you won’t be in Christ Jesus. Which would mean you were never in Christ Jesus, because justification was in Christ’s death alone, but sanctification is not in Christ’s death alone but also in your daily dying, and if you don’t die daily, then you won’t stay sanctified, and you won’t stay in the covenant, which means that you were never justified. Justification itself is by Christ’s death alone, but the assurance of it depends on how you obey the warnings so as to not lose your sanctification.

    Since our context is not legalism but antinomianism, we don’t need all that justification stuff, we need sanctification

    The gospel depends on the situation, the gospel depends on those who hear it, and now in our situation, we need the gospel to be the law, and we need the gospel to be what condemns people–because many are born in the church and many are born in the covenant, so what will condemn them is not the law, because what will condemn them is the gracious but conditional promise of the covenant, what will condemn them is “grace”— a grace common between those who believe and those who don’t believe. Grace for everybody, but believing for some.

    His people” in the old covenants is the same as “His people” in the new covenant
    Jesus might have been your representative but he’s not your replacement and substitute therefore you got to die daily and not only depend on His death alone.
    Not His death alone but also another factor is your repenting, which means doing what your church tells you to do (most likely, because we can’t be sure at this point, because it’s no longer just depending on Christ’s death alone)

    http://www.reformation21.org/articles/the-world-in-the-church-4-lawless-world-lawless-church.php
    So how does this essay fit with what he wrote in From Heaven He Came?

    Has his Reformed ecclesiology subverted his soteriology?

    507, “Punishment God Cannot Twice Inflict”—Garry J Williams —“My argument stands against an unspecified penal satisfaction narrowed only by its application. The sacrifice for sin in Scripture is itself specific…If the penal substitution of Christ has no relation to one person’s sin, then it is not in itself God’s actual answer to any sin, and therefore not penal at all…An unspecified “No” is not an answer to anything; it is without meaning….I cannot see how anyone who excludes the identification of Christ’s satisfaction itself with the specific sins of specific individuals can avoid the logical outcome of denying its truly penal character.
    Garry J Williams, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, ed Gibson, Crossway, 2013, p 513—”The notion that the lost will be punished for the sin of unbelief and not for sin in general allows Lutherans and Arminians to hold that Jesus died for every general sin of every individual, and yet not all must be saved, because unbelievers may still be justly condemned for their unbelief since Christ did not die for it. This reply limits the sins for which Christ died.”
    Williams: “The Lutherans and Arminians have created a difficulty with biblical texts referring to the sins for which Christ died. Every affirmation that sins have been borne by Christ must now be understood to contain a tacit restriction—except the sin of unbelief….If a sinner believes and becomes a Christian at age forty, since the Lutherans teach that Christ did not die for the sin of unbelief, this means that Christ did not die for this man’s sin of unbelief committed over forty years

  5. markmcculley Says:

    Bradley Green, Covenant and Commandment, IVP, 2014, p 63—-“According to Meredith Kline, we are saved by a works principle (Christ’s work for the elect), but Kline thinks that Christ’s work must be kept totally and utterly sequestered from Abraham’s work and from our work. …Kline imports unnecessary categories when he says that there are no conditions (hence not a necessity of obedience) related to the heavenly realm where grace reigns. Does it not make more sense to simply say that within a gracious covenantal relationship God moves his covenant people to obey him.?

    mark mcculley–I am reporting, not agreeing with Green or John Frame or Gaffin. Have you ever noticed that the folks who want to say that there was “grace” in the garden before the fall are the same persons who want to say that grace after the fall includes law and conditions?

    John Frame (law and gospel) —“It is impossible to say that the law is excluded from the message of the gospel.”

    Gaffin ( By Faith, Not By Sight, p 38)—”The antithesis between law and gospel is not a theological ultimate. Rather, that antithesis enters not be virtue of creation but as a consequence of sin, and the gospel functions for its overcoming. The gospel is to the end of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer.”

    https://markmcculley.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/beware-of-gaffins-mysterious-math/

    • markmcculley Says:

      Mark Seifrid—-Calvin is able to speak of the condemning function of the Law with the same vigor as Luther himself ( Institutes 2.7.1-7). Yet in his eagerness to resolve the question of the unity of Scripture, he speaks of the Law as ….not bringing death but serving another purpose. According to this perspective, Law and Gospel do not address the believing human being in radically different ways, but only in differing degrees according to the measures of “grace” present within them. ….

      The embedding of the Law within grace qualifies law’s demand—while the Law works the death of sinners, it has a different effect on the righteous. For the Reformed the Law is no longer a “hard taskmaster,” who exacts full payment. It rather urges believers on to the goal of their lives, exciting them to obedience. In describing how the regenerate experience the Law, Calvin appeals directly to Psalms 19 and 119.

      Calvin regards the Law as addressing the believer as a regenerate person. This “regeneration” is not fully effective in us, but weak and impeded by the “sluggishness” of the flesh. —Calvin regards regeneration to effect a new state within the human being, which is partially present and active. The “flesh” is present as a power that exerts partial influence on us. For Calvin, the most important function of the Law lies in its speaking to us as regenerate persons, urging us onward to the goal that lies before us. In speaking to the regenerate, the Law has lost its condemning function–: it no longer works our death, but only furthers the new life which is partially present in us already.

      Luther finds a radically different anthropology in Scripture. The old, fallen creature exists as a whole alongside the new creature, who is likewise a whole. The picture of the human being is either darkness or light, without any shading of tones. There is no “intermediate state” in which we receive instruction but escape condemnation. In so far as the Law deals with our salvation (and does not merely guide our outward conduct), it pronounces our condemnation. The Law speaks even to us who are regenerate as fallen human beings. Being a Christian means again and again, in all the trials and temptations of life, hearing and believing the Gospel which overcomes the condemnation pronounced on us by the Law and by our own consciences in which that Law is written.

      Psalm 119 strikingly ends on the same note as Rom 7:24: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Seek your servant! For I do not forget your word” (Psalm 119:176). The whole psalm is summarized in this closing statement. The one who delights in the Law of God, who recounts it, meditates on it day and night, and clings to it, nevertheless does not yet know it in his heart and experience, and repeatedly appeals to the Lord to teach him. As he implicitly confesses in the opening of the psalm, his ways are not yet “established” in keeping the Lord’s statutes. He still is ashamed when he considers them (Psalm 119:5-8). In view of these petitions and the closing of the psalm, there is good reason, contrary to usual practice, to render the whole of Psalm119:9 as a question: “How shall a young man purify his way? How shall he keep it according to your word?” This petition recurs in varying forms, as the psalmist looks beyond the Law to the Lord, whom he asks to teach, instruct, and revive him (e.g., Ps 119:12, 18, 25-26, 29, etc.). The condition of the psalmist is not essentially different from that of the believing Paul, who likewise delights in the Law of God, but finds a different Law at work in him that makes him a prisoner of sin. What the psalmist sought from the Lord (and undoubtedly in faith received) is found, Paul with joy announces, in the crucified and risen Christ (Rom 7:25). In Psalm 19, too, the psalmist, even after his exalted praise of the Law confesses that a saving work of God beyond the Law is necessary in his heart: “Who can discern (their) errors? Make me innocent of hidden sins. . . . Then I shall be blameless and innocent of great transgression” (Ps 19:11-13). Admittedly, Psalm 1 lacks this element of confession. But the shadow of the cross lies across this psalm: who among us can claim to be that person here and now? As the psalm itself suggests in its promise that “his leaf does not wither,” the path of the righteous one whom it describes leads through testing and trial on its way to the “season” of fruit (Psalm 1:1-6).

      The sins of which we are aware, dangerous though they may be, are not the most dangerous ones. These hidden faults are more deeply rooted in our person and being than we can imagine, and finally consist in the desire to do away with God and to possess that which properly belongs to our neighbor.

      Admittedly, this perspective robs “progress” of its ultimacy. The goal and end of the Christian life is given to us already at its beginning in Jesus Christ. But this displacing of “progress” from its place of primacy prevents us from taking upon ourselves burdens that we were never meant to bear. What those need who do not feel themselves to be sinners is the careful, gentle, yet direct exposure of their sins—not merely the faults of our society or problems in our culture but the root sins of self seeking, pride, lust, envy, greed by which we deny God and mistreat one another

      http://www.sbts.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2010/07/sbjt_102_sum06-seifrid1.pdf


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