Vickers’ new book on justification (Justification by Grace Through Faith, part of the Explorations in Biblical Theology series from P and R edited by Robert Petersen) sounds at points not much different from Dan Fuller. The Unity of the Bible) was forthright about Fuller’s disagreement with Calvin and Luther. Vickers on the other hand,wants to write without controversy. His way of doing this is an antithesis against antithesis. His way or rejecting polemics is to be comprehensive (catholic), so that he contradicts in one chapter what he wrote in the chapter before.
To get quickly to a most important issue, does God count faith as the righteousness? Does God credit our faith (a gift from God to us) as the righteousness which saves us? In chapter 4, Vickers describes Romans 4: “Paul contrasts two kinds of counting. In the first, wages are counted as the reward for works; in the second, faith is counted as righteousness. This immediately raises the important question: is faith in Christ a replacement for works? Just as works are rewarded with what is due, is faith rewarded with righteousness? This is not the way Paul describes it. God is contrasting two things, not simply swapping one thing for another thing.”
Mark: I agree so far. The works are not rewarded with more works. The works are rewarded with wages. The faith is not rewarded with more faith. The faith is not rewarded by God counting the faith as works. But then comes the problem….b Vickers: “God counts one thing for what it is, but the other thing is received by grace AND IS COUNTED FOR SOMETHING ELSE.
Mark: I agree with the contrast between works and grace, between works and faith. But I disagree that God counts faith as the righteousness. You could say that God “swaps” wages for works, or that God rewards for works, but you should NOT say that God “swaps” faith for righteousness. Remember his question: Is faith a replacement for works. Vickers wants to say no to that. But he can’t stay consistent in saying it. Vickers does think that God counts the gift of faith as the righteousness when he says that ( p 76) ‘faith is counted for something else”
The Second London Confession (1689) addresses this question: “Those whom God effectually calls He also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting them as righteous, not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone. They are not justified because God reckons as their righteousness either their faith, their believing, or any other act of evangelical obedience. They are justified wholly and solely because God imputes to them Christ’s righteousness. ”
Vickers on one hand seems to know that God does not count faith as the righteousness. Thus he makes important qualifications. “Faith must not be thought of apart from its object.” Good. “Justification is not because of faith but by faith.” Correct. And then Vickers uses some more confessional language about “instrumental means” of righteousness instead of faith being the righteousness, or being counted as a substitute or an equivalent for the righteousness. And he concludes, “if faith is the righteousness in question, then faith is a work.” (p77). Again, I agree, but this won’t help much because the Arminians and the Neo-nomians (Baxter, new law for righteousness) will all simply explain that faith however is NOT a work, and therefore they will argue that it’s just for God to count faith as the righteousness, and then they will begin to try to describe this faith (in very similar terms to what Vickers himself does-working!).
Faith is a work. No, it’s not a work. The debate won’t take you very far. Even if the debate is about if faith comes from fallen man’s freewill contribution, the Calvinist accusation that says “well then it’s a work” does not do much because the Arminians will quickly explain that they never say it’s a work and that they know it’s not a work. In this concern that Vickers has about God accepting faith as the righteousness would make faith a work, he’s right to contrast faith and works, but he won’t get far as long as HE ALSO AGREES THAT GOD COUNTS SOMETHING (faith) FOR SOMETHING ELSE (righteousness). And Vickers’ understanding of “imputation” in chapter 3 has falsely brought in the idea of God counting something for what it is not.
Let me explain how I think of “imputation” . Not that I care about that word. Use count, credit, reckon, declare, as you like, but the meaning comes down to two ideas. One, a simple analytic (forensic) declaration. We count God as just because God is just. God counts what Phinehas did as righteous because it was righteous. So all “imputing” has this “declaring what it is” idea to it. But two, in some cases, there is the idea of God ‘s sharing what belongs to one person or persons with another person or persons.
Notice, I say, in some cases. In all cases, there is forensic declaring. But in some cases, God creates (appoints, constitutes) a legal solidarity between two persons, so that what one person has also gets used to arrive at a declaring about the second person. So it’s not only judge and defendant, but a third party. In the case of Christ’s righteousness, the righteousness is the wages due to Christ for his work. The righteousness of Christ is God’s analytic declaration about what was accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t care if you call this metaphorically Christ’s treasury of wages. The metaphor doesn’t bother me. Salvation is by work, not our works, but by Christ’s work. I don’t care if you accuse this of being “contract talk” and “legalism” (as the Barthians like the Torrances do).
But it’s not only two parties, but a third party. God imputes sin to all humans when they are born (Christ the God-man excepted). God. Humans. The third party is Adam. And there are not only two parties (God and the elect) but Christ the third party, when His righteousness is imputed to the elect.
Romans 4:6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
Romans 4:6 does not say the righteousness of Christ, does it? And maybe “to whom counts righteousness” only means “ counts righteous” and maybe that only means “justifies”, so there is no legal sharing with a third party. Others, along with Vickers, have effectively debated against these two objections, and I have nothing to add. If you are “new perspective” enough to say that Christ’s death and resurrection have nothing to do with the counting in Romans 4, you can simply deny the third party. But I want to stay focused on my objection to the very common idea repeated by Vickers that God DOES count faith in the third party as the righteousness. It leaves us with an “as though” version of imputation.
As I suggested before, imputation is always, in every case, analytic declaration, God judging according to truth. Even in the cases in which there is a third party, and a legal sharing with the third party, the relationship is not “as if”. For example, between Christ and the Trinity, in the imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ, the imputation does not cause an internal change in Christ (God forbid), but Christ really (legally, not fictionally) became guilty (under the law) until Christ died once and thus is no more under the law (Romans 6). And if you think this is ‘contract talk” and “legalism” and a bad metaphor over-used, I simply don’t care.
I do wish that more of the debate about “imputed righteousness” would focus on “imputed guilt”, both from Adam to humans, and from elect humans to Christ. God is the imputer, and sometimes there is merely forensic analytic declaration: you are guilty, you are righteous. But in some cases, there is a third party, and legal sharing. (You can say “transfer”, but in the case of Adam, Adam is still guilty. And in the case of Christ, Christ Himself is still righteous and His righteousness (shared) still belongs to Him based on His work. And in the even more complicated case of the “transfer” of sins from the elect to Christ, Christ no longer has that guilt either, because by His satisfaction, the guilt of the elect is neither His nor belongs to the elect anymore.)
Back to Vickers. I think he needs to fix his book by not thinking of imputation as God accepting faith as righteousness. But he won’t get to the bottom of the problem until he starts talking about election and the death of Christ being a particular propitiation only for the elect. He needs to ask himself: whose sins were imputed to Christ? (election) and when were those sins imputed to Christ by whom? (by God, not by sinners, by God before the propitiation, not after faith) But Vickers begins badly by quoting Spurgeon on his conversion: “all this is for you”, “great drops of blood for you”. And Vickers can say: well, I didn’t mean everybody, I meant only those who believe. But first, what’s wrong with talking about election, if indeed you believe in election? And second, unless you talk about justification of the elect by blood for the elect, you will –if even by silence-agree to the idea that everything is conditioned on faith. And then when it comes out that you agree that, in some sense, God Himself counts faith as the righteousness, you have at the end of the day simply reinforced the idolatry which conditions salvation on what God does in the sinners, instead of what God did in Christ. Sure, that’s important but since it was for all, then the decisive thing becomes regeneration in order to have faith. And as we shall see, faith alone gets denied, faith gets redefined, and assurance is held hostage to perseverance not in faith but also in works. Faith gets seen not as empty hands but as the faithfulness which results from our regeneration. And so you join hands in the Southern Baptist Convention with those who say to everybody “the blood is for you”, just so long as they agree with you that regeneration causes the faith which God counts as righteousness.
But Vickers really is “comphrehensive”. Most of my concerns (except for election and the nature of the atonement, imputation of sins to Christ) you can find in his new book somewhere. For example, he warns about “the shocking reality that people who call themselves Christians rely on practically everything for salvation except what lies outside themselves.” (p3). But one of the reasons people do this is that they read books like this by Vickers in which he attempts to be “balanced” between faith alone which turns out of course never to be alone. I agree that faith is a result of regeneration, but I don’t agree when Vickers defines faith as a faithfulness which works.
I am sympathetic, when in his second chapter on the “legacy of Adam”. Vickers does not agree without reserve to a “covenant of works”. I agree, as would those who do teach such a “covenant of works”, that “the real goal was never for the human race to be perfected in Adam”. (p19). Even the infralapsarians at Southern Seminary know there was no plan B—“as far as Scripture goes, the theological hypothetical does not play much of a role”. But he does agree that “obedience in the Mosaic covenant would be rewarded with life” (p44) And on p99, Vickers also points out that “God commanded something he knew the people could not do…”
We could think some more about what kind of life was promised in the law, but I will wait until Vickers gets to Romans 2, where he agrees with his mentor Schreiner that Romans 2 is talking about how God justifies Christians. Instead of saying that the number of Adams who “keep the covenant of works” is an “empty set except for Christ”, Vickers will argue that Romans 2 cannot be hypothetical. And that justification by works he will attempt to put in “ tension” (balance) with his impatience at those who won’t look outside of themselves and their works!
I do notice that Vickers is much more comfortable discussing various ‘covenant testings” than he is about election. For example, on p22, he explains that Christ stands as “representative for those who believe.’ Now, he might think that’s enough to establish his Reformed credentials. After all, that’s also the way Horton and Sproul tend to talk. They don’t use the word election if they can avoid it either. But it does make for fellowship with those who believe that Christ also died for those who don’t believe, and more importantly, it does not address the content or the object of what these “believers” believe. Do they believe that Jesus died for them, as Spurgeon was told?
If the object of faith is not that big of a deal to get all “doctrinal” about ( He’s a person, not the doctrine of justification), what will be the focus? It will be the quality of faith. Do you really believe? If you did, you would work. If you did believe, you will be different and you will keep be different. So much for looking outside ! Oh that too, especially if you are one of those rare introspective birds. But the Southern Baptist Convention does not have too many of them. So thus we need “balance”, we need to make a distinction between “demon faith” and “non-demon faith”? Do you know which one yours is?
In chapter 3, Vickers raises the usual qualifications (John Murray) to the idea of “active obedience”. He explains that Christ was active even in His death. (p 40). But this is not really the objection people tend to have to the notion of “active obedience”. One very common version says that the death of Christ is what causes forgiveness, but that it’s the life of vicarious law-keeping which causes the positive righteousness (standing).
This is a bit of a sticky question for Vickers, since he does not believe that any Christian can have “eternal security” about if they will pass the tests of perseverance or not. Of course he could say with Schreiner that the elect will have that positive righteousness, if they meet the conditions of Romans 2. But this still leaves questions about how much legal sharing those now justified have with Christ’s vicarious law-keeping.
Vickers rightly notes the difference between Romans 4 (impute) and Romans 5 (made) and then helpfully explains how both words still have a forensic sense. Unlike Michael Bird, he does not read impartation and transformation into Romans 5. “When he pairs the word righteous with the word made, then righteous is not focused on behavior or character but on our position before God.” (p49) “The basis of righteousness here is the obedience of Jesus, and to mix in the transformed life of the believer misses Paul’s fundamental point.” Amen to that, but it’s too bad that Vickers later does that very thing, when it comes to Romans 2, 6, and 8.
Chapter 3 is where Vickers allows for the idea of God counting Abraham’s faith as Abraham’s righteousness (despite what Vickers later warns against in chapter 4). First, he agrees, imputing is about God declaring “what is”. But then, Vickers says, it’s sometimes about “as if”. He gives an example of a book he inherited from his father which has sentimental value—-“I count the book as something it is not.” I agree that we value things differently, and even that we make wrong value-judgments. But I do not agree that God ever does this. When God makes a synthetic declaration (in which a third party is involved), God’s declaration is NOT false but based on the legal sharing between one party and the third party. But Vickers claims on p 60 that “Abraham’s faith is counted to him as something it is inherently is not, righteousness.” Please remember what I have quoted above from chapter 4—Vickers warning about making faith a work, about the object of faith, etc. But none of that warning helps him here, or in the rest of chapter 3, where the emphasis on the conditionality of Abraham continuing to do what needs to be done. We got this reading of Genesis a long time ago from Dan Fuller, and it certainly fits with an Edwardsian notion of justification as a process based on God knowing that God will enable the children of Abraham to keep doing well enough to meet the conditions to obtain what they desire.
And then we come to the new soundbite. Or at least I think it’s new. Maybe it was in the Schreiner/Caneday book on perseverance (or its abbreviated form by Schreiner) but I don’t remember it. It’s a “covenantal nomism” distinction between election and conditional covenant. Are you ready for the soundbite? Here it is. “God keeps his word. At the same time the blessing is unconditionally promised to a particular sort of people.” (p66) Got it? Clever, is it not? “At the same time”. The covenant itself is “unconditional”. But. Who stays in the covenant, well, that’s not so unconditional. “A particular sort of people”. The people God keeps causing to keep meeting the conditions (100% God, but also 100% them). So far, good,but you haven’t got to the end and there is no “closure”. Certainly no antinomian “once saved, always saved”. Maybe you think you are in the “particular kind of people” but are you really? Of course, there are different ways to say this. Vickers does not talk like the federal visionists about baptism making you Christian and regenerate, and then you losing it. But still you have tokeep running to the end in works that evidence faith alone.
But don’t I myself have a similar kind of problem, since I insist first, that Christ died only for the elect and second, that the elect will come to know and believe the gospel.? So maybe next week, I will find out that I am not elect, and that I don’t believe the gospel, and then it will be seen as evidence that I never did? . We should continue to think about that challenge, but for sake of information, let me remind you that Vickers and Schreiner (along with Piper and Dan Fuller) don’t like to think of the warnings as after-the-fact evidence. They love the “beauty of threats” as the means of grace. See especially Piper’s book Future Grace and its plea for “conditionality”.
Then we can discuss the difference is between the idea of “evidence” and “warnings as means”. Maybe we can discuss also the conclusion by Vickers: “However, while Abraham sets the standard for justification by faith alone, he also proves the old Protestant phrase—the faith that justifies alone is never alone.” (p70) Yes, I do want to question old phrases, but before we do that, we need to question the idea that God counts faith as the righteousness. God imputes righteousness. God does not impute faith. And God certainly does not impute faith as righteousness. Faith is not ‘all that is needed”. Christ’s righteousness is needed. Faith is a gift given by means of Christ’s righteousness. II Peter 1:1– To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
On page 74, Vickers makes some of the most polemical remarks in his book. They are not directed against NT Wright or the new perspective, or against Romanists or Arminians who say that God counts faith as righteousness. Rather, Vickers attempts to distance himself from the metaphor of a “storehouse of merit”. While I don’t have a big problem with old writers who used the metaphor that way, Vickers seems very worked up when he insists that “righteousness is not a commodity”. Sure, agree also that it’s not a gas or a liquid either, but if you really want to do us a service, interact with a specific old (or new) writer who uses the metaphor in a way you don’t approve. Help us to think through the problems.
When you simply say that “the righteousness in view is incarnate”, that opens you wide to Osiander who located the righteousness in Christ indwelling us. Even worse, it opens up the old false antithesis between person and work, so that the work of Christ can be disregarded (or believed in “implicitly”, ie, without understanding) just so long as we all look together at Christ. But the “righteousness revealed” in the gospel (Romans 1) is not simply God’s attribute as just, but what God got done in Christ, the work of that third party I have been talking about!
Vickers says that “imputation is sharing in the Christ who is our righteousness” But to say that is to agree that we no longer need the language of imputation, and we can simply say “union with Christ” or “participation in Christ”. It turns out that those phrases need their own explanations. For example, how does “in Christ” relate to “Christ in us”, and is the difference between the two phrases important, or is everything solved by simply saying “union” or “participation? Don’t those metaphors have to be thought through as well, both in what they mean and what they don’t?
While we don’t have to talk about “first national bank of heaven”, Bunyan was not wrong to say that the righteousness is not in us but in heaven. Nor do I think it’s helpful to be so dismissive of “some theologians who speak of the atonement as something that can be mathematically quantified.” If you want to think more about that, read again the excellent book by your colleague Tom Nettles (By His Grace and for His Glory) on old Baptist theologians Boyce and Dagg and Abraham Booth. No matter what Andrew Fuller may have said, it was not John Gill who invented the idea of atonement by price, nor was it Tom Nettles who invented the idea of Christ doing things by measure (instead of by infinity). Pay special attention to the distinction Nettles makes between imputation in the atonement, and imputation in justification.
It’s not enough to contrast believing and doing, especially if it turns out that you stress the evidence of believing is doing. (p 80) The big focus of the gospel is not our believing. The big focus of the gospel is the doing of Christ. When I say that, I am not trying to go back to the debate about vicarious lawkeeping or the idea that His death is not the righteousness or not enough alone for the righteousness. His death is His righteousness. His death is His doing. And if we are depending on the idea that we believe instead of doing, we are still not believing on what Christ did. And if we think that God will count our believing as the righteousness God accepts, we are mistaken, no matter how much we give God the credit for our believing.
Vickers gives and then takes away. For example, I rejoice to read his comments on how we use “mere” (as in alone, sola!): “We have to be practical that we neither practically de-emphasize forgiveness in efforts to uphold another vital biblical doctrine nor mistakenly speak of it in ways that downplay the astonishing truth that in Christ our sins are forgiven.” (p 82) Great, but it’s about to be taken away—who is the “our”. Is it the elect? Is it those who look outside themselves to Christ? The soundbite keeps repeating itself. “The promise to Abraham is secure”. It’s objective and unconditional. But is the promise for you? “His promise will be kept with a certain sort of people”. P 109. What sort of a person are you? Are you a sinner just as you were, even after regeneration, still in need of forgiveness? Genesis 18:22—the promise will come to those who do righteousness and justice”. Do you? Have you? Will you?
Vickers does not really deal with the idea that the law “is not of faith” (Galatians 3:12) He tends to equate all disobedience with lack of faith, so that lawlessness is not having faith in the gospel. According to him, all sin is works righteousness, and true righteousness is faith righteousness, so there are two kinds of doing, a right way of doing and a wrong way of doing.
But what about the comforting idea of not doing (no works, not even of the right kind) but resting in what Christ has done? Vickers explains: “recognizing the do this element in the law in no way negates faith, because the people of Israel needed to believe that God was who he said he was”. (p112) The right sort of people believe that they need to do what God says if they are going to be saved. The wrong sort of people think that Christ is the fulfillment of the law for righteousness.
On p 122, Vickers gives a summary of his comprehensive approach in his discussion of the three major interpretations of the phrase “the righteousness of God”. One, legally declared to be right as a gift; two, a declaration which includes an effective transformation; three, God’s covenantal faithfulness. And then Vickers gives his antithesis against antithesis.”I do not reject the other views as having no basis in Scripture. I see them as subordinate but not wrong.” I certainly agree that the word “righteousness” has different meanings in different texts. But I have more respect for NT Wright, who will read a text and say, it doesn’t mean “declared as a gift”, than I do for the idea that the idea of “transformation” is included in certain texts, for example, the texts which talk about God imputing righteousness! Why didn’t Luther say to the pope: not wrong. Why didn’t Calvin say to Osiander: it’s all good?
Maybe like you, I have certain texts I like to check when I get a new book on justification. Romans 2:28-29.Romans 6:7. Romans 8:4. Vickers gets them all wrong. Vickers reads 6:7 as being about “power for a new life of obedience”. Instead of Christ being justified from sin, instead of those who share in Christ’s death being justified from sin, Vickers talks about freedom as transformation. But Christ Himself was “freed from sin”—does that mean that Christ was given a new power to obey? To share in his death is to share in his freedom from guilt. But Vickers warns that “too often justification declared and the new life of the justified are practically severed…” (p 124) This fails to come to terms with Christ’s own freedom from the dominion of sin as freedom from guilt because of His death which satisfied the law. Romans 6 is not about the Holy Spirit, but about justification.
On Romans 2:28-29, “Paul is saying that the new covenant is established, and now all the people of God obey from a heart filled with the Spirit.” (p 158). For Vickers, this proves that the right sort of people are meeting the conditions of Romans 2:13. As he explains, “the praise from God is the final reward of eternal life. Those who obey through the Spirit will be rewarded with life on the last day.” Vickers grants that this is a little confusing to people who have been taught “faith alone”, so they will even begin to ask how many justifications are there. But his answer is like what the Romanists say about the mass—there’s only one sacrifice, and this one now is the same one as back then. “Justification in the present is the same justification that will be declared publicly in the future…there is no conception that obedience to God is a totally separate issue from salvation.” The sort of people will be “those who were doers of the law through the Spirit”.
On Romans 8:4, Vickers comments: “I do not think it is likely that Paul is speaking here of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the fulfillment, but rather of what Christ’s work accomplishes in us through the Spirit.” P160) But since Vickers is not into polemics (except with those who use commercial metaphors for the atonement or for justification), he does not interact with Hodge or Smeaton or anybody else who has a different view. He thinks the word “walking” proves his point. As to the question of which law it is that we are imperfectly fulfilling, Vickers tells us that “it is not the law of Moses per se but the aim of it that believers fulfill through the Spirit. This does not mean that justification is based on works done through us by the Spirit, but that the Spirit-driven obedience is part and parcel of the life of the justified. A tree is known by its fruit.” So he doe not think perfection is necessary for “fulfillment”. Fudge things a bit–the intent of the law, and the intent of us wanting to be perfect.
So what sort of people are you? Are you the sort of person who can live in the distinction between “based on” and “part and parcel” (warnings not evidence)? Or do such distinctions tend to deconstruct before your eyes when you end up crying with the enemy’s tax agent: God be merciful (propitiated!) to me . One problem with being so catholic is that you tend to want to say different things to different people. You want to be wise enough to preach faith is not alone to those who believe in faith alone, and then preach faith alone (look outside) to those who thank God for having given them a new heart which meets the conditions. So you get to the last paragraph, and you think about who might read books about justification, and then Vickers concludes: “We must be bold enough to tell people that no amount of confessional orthodoxy is enough to save anyone, and that being a dyed in the wool believer of justification by faith is not the same thing as trusting Christ for salvation. We cannot skirt the reality that the true people of God are meant to live as those who have the Spirit…” (p 162)
I hope to have quoted enough of Vickers to represent what he is teaching accurately and I wish to be instructed where I have not. But with that last quotation, I may have encouraged several of you pastors who like to “challenge” your people to buy this new book. I don’t disagree that we are meant to obey God by the Spirit. Whatever has or has not been predestined in no way changes our duties to God. But I am not only concerned about sinners like me who today have again not done what we should have done and meant to do. I am also somewhat concerned about the great sin of self-righteousness of those who not only believe that their doing today is enough to have passed today’s test but who also think that God counts this ongoing faith as the righteousness. God does not impute on an “as if” basis.
Smeaton, Apostles Doctrine of the Atonement, p178–”Romans 8:4–That the righteousness of the law would be fulfilled in us. That is so like another expression of the same apostle, that the two passages might fitly be compared for mutual elucidation (II Cor 5:21). This expression cannot be referred to any inward work of renovation; for no work or attainment of ours can with any propriety of language be designated a “fulfillment of the righteousness of the law”.
The words, “the righteousness of the law,” are descriptive of Christ’s obedience as the work of one for many (Romans 5:18). This result is delineated as the end contemplated by Christ’s incarnation and atonement, and intimates that as He was made a sin-offering, so are we regarded as full-fillers of the law…”
Charles Hodge: one’s interpretation of Romans 8 verse 4 is determined by the view taken of Romans 8:3. If that verse means that God, by sending His Son, destroyed sin in us, then, of course, this verse must mean, “He destroyed sin in order that we should fulfill the law” — that is, so that we should be holy (sanctification). But if Romans 8:3 refers to the sacrificial death of Christ and to the condemnation of sin in Him as the sinners’ substitute, then this verse must refer to justification and not sanctification.”