Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Imputation and the Grammar of Justification

What is grammar?

Besides the logic of the act or declaration of justification, which we looked at in the past post, there is what I shall call a grammar of justification that arises on the basis of such an act of imputation. By a ‘grammar’ here I do not merely mean a way of talking, what it makes sense to say and not to say within a particular ‘form of life’ of a vaguely Wittgensteinian sense, in the way that Lindbeck uses the term in his book The Nature of Doctrine. There is a decidedly non-realist flavour to this Lindbeckian usage. (George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine 79f.)

Rather, as I shall use it, grammar is a way of talking that arises out of a recognition of particular divine realities as these are revealed to us in Scripture. These realities impose upon us a certain kind of mental discipline, a discipline regarding what it makes sense to say, even if what we are talking about are divinely-revealed mysteries that we cannot fully comprehend. And so the revealed reality of the Trinitarian character of God imposes on us the discipline of thinking of the threeness of the divine nature as not implying three Gods, three distinct divinities. To move in that way from the threeness of God to tritheism is to make a grammatical mistake, even though God’s threeness and oneness are shrouded in mystery. We simply do not do justice to the revelation if we move in the direction of tritheism, just as we do not do it justice if we talk in a modalistic way of the divine three-in-one-ness. Part of the function of a creed or a confession of faith is to spell out that grammar. (On this see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy, (OUP, 2004), 14-5, 175).

Justification and Imputation

So it is with other revealed realities, especially (for us, here), the relation between the realities of imputation and justification. On the Reformed view of imputation it is only the immaculate righteousness of Jesus Christ himself, procured through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, that is sufficient for justification.

For example, for Calvin, only a perfect righteousness will secure pardon, and such righteousness is that possessed only by God himself. ‘[T]he righteousness of which God makes us partakers is the eternal righteousness of the eternal God’. (Inst. III.11.9) Nevertheless, it is as the Mediator, as God-man, that Christ procures such righteousness for us.

Hence I infer, first, that Christ was made righteousness when he assumed the form of a servant; secondly, that he justified us by his obedience to the Father; and , accordingly that he does not perform this for us in respect of his divine nature, but according to the nature of the dispensation laid upon him. For though God alone is the fountain of righteousness, and the only way in which we are righteous is by participation with him, yet as by our unhappy revolt we are alienated from his righteousness, it is necessary to descend to this lower remedy, that Christ may justify us by the power of his death and resurrection. (Inst. III.11.8)

Believers are ‘clothed’ in this righteousness, they are ‘covered’ by it. (Inst. III.11.2, 23)

If this righteousness were not to be imputed to us, but to be imparted to us so as to become a part of our inner nature, our moral character, then it would inevitably be or become tainted, and so compromise its perfection and so lose its power to justify. (These are steps in the spelling out of the ‘grammar’). Because sanctification in this life is always imperfect, tainted, as a consequence the believer, the one justified, has to ask for pardon (based upon the objective provision of Christ’s righteousness) for the deficiencies of even his best, sanctified, efforts. We see from this that the impartation or communication that is involved in imputation cannot imply anything that would compromise or sully the character of the righteousness in question. The imputation must be understood in a way that completely guarantees and safeguards the character of the righteousness that is imputed. So justification must be wholly on the basis of imputation and not at all on the basis of impartation.

Therefore we must have this blessedness not once only, but must hold it fast during our whole lives. Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days, but is declared to be perpetual in the church (2 Cor 5:18,19). Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described. Christ ever remains a Mediator to reconcile the Father to us, and there is a perpetual efficacy in his death, i.e., ablution, satisfaction, expiation; in short, perfect obedience, by which all our iniquities are covered. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says not that the beginning of salvation is of grace, but “by grace are ye saved”, “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2: 8,9). (Inst. III.14.11)

For the righteousness of Christ (as it alone is perfect, so it alone can stand the scrutiny of God) must be summoned for us, and as a surety represent us judicially. Provided with this righteousness, we constantly obtain the remission of sins through faith. Our imperfection and impurity, covered with this purity, are not imputed but are as it were buried, so as not to come under judgment until the hour arrive when the old man being destroyed, and plainly extinguished in us, the divine goodness shall receive us into beatific peace with the new Adam, there to await the day of the Lord, on which, being clothed with incorruptible bodies, we shall be translated to the glory of the heavenly kingdom. (Inst. III.14.12)

Justification is not a mere threshold blessing; something which applies to people at their conversion and not subsequently. It is operative at all times, an, objective, perfect, judicial righteousness. It is this righteousness, complete and unassailable, that is the ground of Christian assurance. So there is a sense in which for Calvin the believer never leaves the law-court in which the judge declares us righteous for Christ’s sake. He needs that declaration always to stand, and never to be relegated into something over and done with, or requiring to be supplemented by some righteousness of his own.

This is one element to the grammar of justification. It is justification through imputation and in no other way. But there are other grammatical elements which connect up with this one and these two elements as a consequence mutually reinforce each other.

Justification is justification at the bar of Almighty God. The primary question for is not whether or not a person, being justified, is a member of the visible covenant community. That’s a secondary question, though by no means unimportant. The primary question is, how can I face God’s judgment? This is vividly seen in the structure of Calvin’s discussion. Having set forth the main elements of justification by faith, after chapter 11 of Book III, with its polemic against Augustine, Osiander and the schoolmen, the reader is stopped short by the heading of chapter 12: ‘The Necessity of Contemplating the Judgment Seat of God in Order to Be Seriously Convinced of the Doctrine of Gratuitous Justification’. Justification is not a matter merely of academic debate, one confined ‘within the precincts of the schools’, nor is it basically an ecclesiological matter, but it has to do with the ‘judgment seat of God’.

[T]he question must be: How shall we answer the heavenly Judge when he calls us to account? Let us contemplate that Judge, not as our own unaided intellect conceives of him, but as he is portrayed to us in Scripture (see especially the book of Job), with a brightness which obscures the stars, a strength which melts the mountains, an anger which shakes the earth, a wisdom which takes the wise in their own craftiness, a purity before which all things become impure, a righteousness…. which once kindled burns to the lowest hell…..if our life is brought to the standard of the written law, we are lethargic indeed if we are not filled with dread at the many maledictions which God has employed for the purpose of arousing us, and among others, the following general one: “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them”. (Deut. 27.26) (Inst. III.12.1)

So the one declaration of justification, grounded in Christ’s righteousness, must be sufficient to carry the believer to the final judgment and to vindicate him there. This at one stroke puts paid to the idea that ‘first justification’ could be something separat from 'final justification’, as far as regards our acceptance with God is concerned. Once justified, always justified. A justification that requires some kind of augmentation or supplementation, for example, the supplemenation of a faithful life, in order to secure our acceptance, makes no sense. It is ‘ungrammatical’. Given the immaculate righteousness of Christ, why would human works, however saintly, also be necessary? For however saintly, they are still tainted by sin. And given that anything the saintliest believer does is tainted, how could such tainted righteousness be an element in ‘final justification’? Since the believer’s best efforts in sanctification are themselves tainted and spoiled by his sin, even these efforts need forgiveness. This is so-called ‘double justification’. One consequence of this is that, as A.N.S. Lane puts it, ‘[F]or the Protestant being reckoned righteous through faith alone is a truth not just for the moment of conversion but for the whole Christian life’. (Justification in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue, (London , T and T Clark, 2002), 265-6) Calvin sees Paul’s answer to his own exultant question ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?’ to be the ‘unremitted continuance of God’s favour, from the time of our calling to the hour of death’. (Comm. Rom. 8.30) It can be seen from this that the two grammatical elements reinforce each other; they draw out distinct implications from the one divine reality of justification, implications that are grounded in the overall biblical witness, as when Paul and others link justification to vindication at the final judgment.

Sanctification and the grammar of justification

What of sanctification in all this? Considering this question leads us to a further, and perhaps a final element of the grammar of the Reformed doctrine of justification. On the Reformed understanding, sanctification is an inseparable concomitant of justification. The two are distinct, not merged or blended into each other, and they are inseparably connected, as two distinct gifts of God. (Inst. III.14. 19-20), even though justification has the priority. Everything depends upon the free righteousness of Christ. As we have seen, justification is sufficient for acceptance, and though sanctification is inseparably attached to justification, because of the sufficiency of justification for acceptance, sanctification cannot in any way be necessary for acceptance. God justifies the ungodly.