Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine
J. V. Fesko
(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008, 461pages),
reviewed by James P. Butler
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is foundational to biblical Christianity. This doctrine always has been a target of heretics, as may be seen from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Church history shows that the attacks on this doctrine did not cease after Paul wrote Galatians. The church, therefore, has had to contend earnestly for the truth of justification and Dr. Fesko has provided us with an excellent resource to aid in the presentation, defense, and propagation of the doctrine. The book is comprehensive in its scope and details various aspects of the doctrine, namely the doctrine considered historically, exegetically, and theologically.
In chapter 1, Fesko sets forth justification in church history. He deals with the patristic era (100-600) under the following subsections: the Augustine-Pelagius debate, semi-Pelagianism, and later Augustinianism. He then treats the Middle Ages (600-1500), giving specific attention to Aquinas, Scotus, and broader theological developments. The third section of the historical development is the Reformation and Post-Reformation era (1517-1700). He ably handles Luther, Calvin, the counter-reformation, and post-reformation era. The section on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries proved especially helpful as Fekso highlights some inconsistency in Jonathan Edwards. He also finishes the historical survey with the Twentieth Century to the present and deals specifically with Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, and the New Perspective on Paul.
Chapter 2 deals with matters concerning prolegomena. Here Fesko competently shows that justification is not one “among many metaphors of our redemption” (91) but that it is “at the center of Paul’s thought” (92).
After a helpful discussion of the structure of redemptive history (chapter 3), Fesko then addresses specific theological issues relative to justification. Chapter 4 is an excellent presentation and defense of the covenant of works. After some introductory and definitional comments on covenant, Fesko sets out an able treatment of covenant in Genesis 1-3 with appeals to other passages for support (i.e., Gen. 6:18; Hos. 6:7; Rom. 5:12-19). As he says later in the book, “as we have seen throughout our study, one’s soteriology must begin with a consideration of protology” (401). His treatment of Adam in the Garden is stimulating. The first Adam was a type and under the covenant of works. The last Adam was the antitype who fulfilled the covenant of works and secured the redemption of His people.
Chapter 5 naturally leads to “Justification and the Work of Christ.” Fesko shows how Christ completed the dominion mandate (1 Cor. 15:20-28) and through His obedience laid the foundation for justification. Since the opponents of justification by faith alone have vigorously attacked the covenant of works and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, Fesko provides a welcomed antidote with which to combat the detractors. His treatment of the active and passive obedienceof Christ is both biblical and confessional and will stand the scrutiny of gainsayers.
In chapter 6, Fesko takes up “Justification in its Historical Context” and basically disposes with the historical revisionism of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright with their insistence on covenantal nomism in second-temple Judaism. Pertinent to this theme, Fesko sets out an historically accurate and exegetically sound interpretation of Paul’s use of “works of the law.” He rejects the notion that justification was for Paul an ecclesiastical (or sociological) concern and sides with the Protestant reformers who defined justification as the answer to the question of how a sinful man can stand before a holy God.
In chapter 7, Fesko highlights the nature of justification by faith alone. Through the methodical and thorough exegesis of relevant passages, he demonstrates the accuracy of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s emphases concerning justification: (1) it is by faith alone, (2) it involves the remission of sins, and (3) it entails the imputation of righteousness. There are some doctrinal formulations in history that we should not try to improve on, and one of these is question and answer #33 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Fesko ably demonstrates its exegetical foundation for the divine’s definition.
In chapter 8, Fesko takes on “Justification and the New Perspective on Paul.” N. T. Wright is embraced by a large number of evangelicals and reformed people alike. I have heard people say, “I know he gets justification wrong, but he sure does a great job with the gospels.” I believe that we should embrace those who are good with the gospels AND get justification right. Fesko’s book is a helpful antidote to the New Perspective on Paul and its cousin, the Federal Vision. Fesko’s point is well stated. “Justification, therefore, is not about the vindication of the people of God before the world as Wright maintains. Rather it is about the verdict that God passes upon the person who stands in his presence, the verdict of guilty or innocent” (235-36). Amen!
In chapters 9-11, Fesko treats justification relative to other doctrines in the ordo salutis. Chapter 9 is an excellent treatment of “Justification and Imputation” in which the author deals with all of the relevant texts. The opponents of imputation (Wright) miss the doctrine in 2 Cor. 5:21 and neglect Rom. 5:17-19 in the discussion of imputation. Fesko provides thorough exegesis, which establishes the biblical foundation for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people. In chapter 10, Fesko treats “Justification and Union with Christ” and shows the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed view with reference to the placement of union with Christ. He argues that union with Christ undergirds the entirety of the ordo salutis. Chapter 11 is an able explanation of the connection between “Justification and Sanctification” with attention given to Js. 2:14-26.
Chapter 12 is intriguing as Fesko deals with “Justification and the Final Judgment.” He shows that justification does not straddle over “the already-not yet,” but that “the one declaration of justification in the present is revealed in the future by means of the resurrection” (323). He goes on to say:
In other words, it is not that justification has two parts, present and future, but rather that it has two levels of publication, the resurrection according to the inner and outer man, or in terms of the ordo salutis, justification and glorification. When the believer is justified by faith alone, he is immediately raised with Christ. (323)
The opponents of the biblical doctrine of forensic justification speak of “final justification” or “eschatological justification,” which usually means there is a place for our works in the completion of our justification. Fesko however, maintains “the unity of the parousia-resurrection-final judgment,” and thus “preserves the eschatological nature of justification and that the believer’s righteousness in the present is revealed by the resurrection on the last day” (331).
Chapters 13-15 take up the doctrine of justification relative to the church. In chapter 13, Fesko explores justification from a pastoral perspective in terms of how it relates to the corporate body, missions, pastoral counseling, and baptism. I was in agreement with his section on baptism until, of course, he included infants. In explaining baptism relative to infants, Fesko writes:
This means that when an infant is baptized, the grace exhibited in baptism becomes effectual to his salvation after his justification by faith alone, and his faith is further strengthened as he witnesses others who are baptized.
I think it is a shame that he cannot have his faith strengthened by witnessing his own baptism. Chapters 14 and 15 deal with justification and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches respectively. Both chapters are very helpful and further demonstrate the need for Protestants to have a biblical and confessional understanding of this great doctrine.
Dr. Fesko has done the church a great service with “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.” The book has staying power as it deals with an on-going threat to the church of Christ. Whether the opponents are Judaizers, Pelagians, Roman Catholics, New Perspective on Paul, or Federal Vision, the net result is the same: an attempt is made to distort the truth that in an act of God’s free grace, He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone. Dr. Fesko helps us to respond to the threat.