Monday, May 30, 2005

Is Justification a one-time legal imputation only?

In a conversation I had with a Calvinist seminarian, a disagreement with regard to what Scripture teaches regarding justification occurred. The Calvinist seminarian insisted upon justification being a one-time legal imputation of one's sins. I asserted that Scripture describes it as an ongoing process of faithfulness when faced with recurring tribulation, where one actually, truly becomes righteous through faithfulness or the obedience of faith.

Here's some excerpts of our conversation. It's lengthy, but it gives a good appreciation of the Calvinist versus Catholic understanding of Justification...

Calvinist seminarian:

"If you hold to a fatally defective view of justification, you are not a Christian whether you have been baptized or not. ... I keep wondering - are any Catholic apologists out there ever going to debate the actual Protestant view of justification?"


I just read this by Robert Sungenis, and I thought it made sense to me:

"Has any Catholic theologian ever contested that dikaiow and its derivatives are totally void or incapable of being used in a legal sense? No, never. There were various instances in which the Greeks used the word in legal contexts. Paul could have done the same thing, if he desired to do so. But that just begs the question: DID he do so? Take the word "marriage," for example. Is that a legal term or a personal term? It can be either, depending on the context in which it is placed. When applying for a marriage license, or when in divorce court, the word "marriage" becomes very legal, does it not? But when a husband loves his wife (as opposed to merely giving her food, clothing and shelter) is "marriage" merely a legal term? No, certainly not. It takes on a whole new meaning that law knows nothing about, for law can't love. Only people who make a personal commitment of trust and care can love each other."
The forensic legalistic view of Justification is just as foreign to the Catholic faith as is a purely legalistic view of marriage.

I like how Scott Hahn, a convert to Catholicism and a former Calvinist seminary professor, describes the Catholic view of Justification:

justification from a Catholic perspective is divine sonship. It's standing in God's family. ... Justification, then, understood in the Catholic way, involves both the imputation of legal righteousness as the Protestants believe, but also the infusion of Christ's life and grace as the divine son so that in Christ we become at justification living, breathing sons of God, not just legally but actually. That's what the grace of the Father does for His children. In other words we hold with the Protestants that justification involves a legal decree, a divine word, that we are just, but unlike the Protestants and contrary to their position, we believe that that word of justification goes forth in power. In other words, God does what he declares. In the very act of declaring us just he makes us just because His Word is omnipotent, it's all-powerful. Isaiah 55:11: "So shall my Word go forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose." ... The point is that whatever God declares, He does by declaring it to be, because the Word of God is the living and active Christ himself. When we're declared just, God does what he declares. ... So it's like a father who gives and fills his children with all that he has and is. ... First John, chapter 3, verse 7: "Little children, let no one deceive you, he who does right is righteous as He is righteous." ...

[Protestant] John Murray ... argues ... "Adoption is only a judicial act." We're not really made children of God, we're simply declared children legally. That's not the Catholic view.

Calvinist seminarian:

Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised. This will be a critical statement for my opponent to deal with, for if he says (as all Roman Catholics I have dialogued about this with have) that James chapter two is teaching that Abraham was ‘justified’ in exactly the same sense (when he offered Isaac) as Paul does here, we are faced with a diametric contradiction to Paul’s express teaching in this passage. When Abraham offered Isaac in Genesis 22, that was years after he was circumcised. Paul leaves no room for doubt about when Abraham was justified before God, "not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised." That is, in my opinion, the ultimate problem with the standard Roman Catholic interpretation of James 2:24. ... Most Catholic apologists will argue that Abraham was actually justified before God in both instances, i.e. when he believed the promise of Yahweh in Genesis 15:6 and also in Genesis 22 when he was about to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering. Were this the case, Paul simply could not have argued the way he does in Romans chapter 4. ... Dave, Paul says Abraham was justified not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. Now, had you been standing there you would have said, "No Paul, it was both while uncircumcised and while circumcised." How do you deal with that?


The point made by Robert Sungenis with regard to Abraham's justification is compelling (cf. Not by Faith Alone, p. 231ff):

Heb 11:8 "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going."

By faith Abraham ... obeyed. There wasn't merely a one-time assent of the intellect alone, but a continuous assent of the intellect and continuous willing action. Abraham continuously sought God's will instead of his own and God rewarded that faithfulness continuously justifying Abraham.

Paul couples action to faith when he speaks of the "obedience of faith." Scripture elsewhere describes this obedience as deeds or works. The works are not merely the works of the Torah that Paul is arguing against, or any similar works that attempt to OBLIGATE God. The obedience of faith that Abraham demonstrates are works that are quite different. They are the works that James says justifies, what Paul calls "faith working in love."

Abraham had faith which obeyed. This is often understood more clearly as "faithfulness." Obeying God because of a loving faith in God, not as an attempt to obligate God as in a legal contract. Abraham had this kind of faith in Genesis 12, according to the Epistle of Hebrews, ch. 11. Was he justified by that faith as early as Genesis 12? Yes. [when he was as of yet, uncircumcised].

Abraham had faith, acted in faith, thereby earnestly sought to do God's will. God rewards those who act faithfully.

Heb 11:6 "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

Paul in Heb 11 speaks of others who demonstrated God-pleasing faith: Abel, Enoch, and Noah (Heb 11:4-7). Such God-pleasing faithfulness is what justifies, and it is clear that Abraham had it in Gen 12. We can reach no other conclusion that Abraham had faith that justified him in Gen 12.

Paul describes Abraham's faith in Gen 15 in precisely the same way (Heb 11:11), giving us further evidence that Abraham was justified in Gen 12. [see also Heb 11:17 and Gen 22]. As Sungenis points out, this brings the Protestant idea of justification as a one-time act into question.

Reformed [Calvinist] theologian R.C. Sproul states:
Reformation theology insists that regeneration that changes the heart of the sinner must precede faith. (Faith Alone, p. 87)
Abraham had faith in Gen 12, according the Hebrews 11. Therefore, he must have been regenerated prior to that, in the Reformed view, right?

However, Gen 15:6 states "Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." [see also Gen 22]

1) Was Abraham justified by the faith which he certainly had in Gen 12, or by the faith he had in Gen 15? [or Gen 22], Or ...

2) Did Abraham ALREADY demonstrate that he had God-pleasing justifying faith way back in Gen 12, but his continued faithfulness (obedience of faith, or faith working in charity) was efficacious towards continued justification (as a process, not a one-time event)?

I think it was the latter.

Calvinist seminarian:

It is one of the most common errors of beginning bible students to take a single word (in this instance, "faith"), assign a meaning to it in isolation, and then ram that into every single context in which it is used. The whole argument of Abraham being justified three times, Gen 12, 15, 22 that Sungenis uses completely ignores the interpretation that the inspired apostles give of those very texts. Abraham did not "believe in Yahweh" such that he was justified until Genesis 15:6 when God took him out and showed him the stars, etc... That is where we find that phrase, "Abraham believed in Yahweh and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Not in Genesis 12 or 22 - that is Sungenis taking the word "faith" from Hebrews 11, saying it has to be the same kind of faith in Romans 4, string that all together and then we have the Catholic doctrine of justification being a process. And again, you just find yourselves arguing against the apostles themselves.

There are many kinds of faith.... God called Abraham to leave his father's house and in faith, Abraham obeyed. Why do you take this to mean, this means he believed in the Lord just as in Genesis 15:6. Moses tells us Abraham was justified Genesiseis 15:6, not Genesis 12.... you're making an interpretation and applications the text itself does not make.... Abraham had the gospel preached to him in Genesis 12 but he did not believe unto his own justification until Genesis 15:6 ... The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 presents four kinds of faith


Actually, Paul himself equated the faith referred to in Heb 11:8 (Gen 12) as the same as the faith referred to in Heb 11:11 (Gen 15), as the same kind of faith spoken of throughout Heb 11, as the same kind of faith by which "men of old gained approval." (Heb 11:2)

Nowhere in Heb 11 is there a discussion of differing "kinds of faith." Your interpretation is, how did you put it, "transparently eisegetical."

Heb 11:3 "By faith we [Christians] understand ..."
Heb 11:4 "By faith Abel offered to God ..."
Heb 11:5 "By faith Enoch was taken up ...
Heb 11:7 "By faith, Noah ... in reverence prepared an ark ..."
Heb 11:8 "By faith Abraham ... obeyed by going out to a place ... " [cf. Gen 12]
Heb 11:9 "By faith [Abraham] lived as an alien in the land of promise ..."
Heb 11:11 "By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive ... [cf. Gen 15]
Heb 11:17 "By faith Abraham ... offered up Isaac" [cf. Gen 22]
Heb 11:20 "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau ..."
Heb 11:21 "By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph ..."
Heb 11:22 "By faith Joseph ... made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel ..."
Heb 22:23 "By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents ..."
Heb 22:24 "By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter ..."
Heb 22:27 "By faith [Moses] left Egypt ..."
Heb 22:28 "By faith [Moses] kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood ..."
Heb 22:29 "By faith they passed through the Red Sea ..."
Heb 22:30 "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down ..."
Heb 22:31 "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish ..."
Heb 22:32 "By faith [Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets] conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness ..."

All ONE kind of faith ... a justifying faith by which these men of old gained approval, by which we Christians understand. All the same faith described as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Heb 11:1)

Heb 11 described just ONE kind of faith. James describes the faith of demons. That's two kinds.

[Matthew 13] presented ONE kind of faith and four different responses to that faith.

... I understand you to mean you believe you are justified because you have "hope" in the satisfaction earned by Jesus, right? Am I correct in equating that hope to fiduciary faith? If so, when did you begin to have this fiduciary faith? Were you regenerated prior to that faith? Were you justified simultaneous to having that faith or was it after having that faith? If after, when?

Calvinist seminarian:

"Am I correct in equating that hope to fiduciary faith?" Yes.

"If so, when did you begin to have this fiduciary faith?" I think about 4 or 5 yrs old.

"Were you regenerated prior to that faith?" Yes.

"Were you justified simultaneous to having that faith or was it after having that faith? If after, when?" Whatever Paul meant when he said, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" - Romans 3:28. If you want to say it was simultaneous, or right after, that's fine. ... Faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9, Philippians 1:29) to the sinner. We believe to the saving of our souls, but that desire comes *only* from God when he takes out the heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh in regeneration. Hence, all of the glory for all of it, regeneration, faith, repentance, and everything else is to be given to God alone - not just for making it possible, as you believe, but for actually accomplishing it unilaterally.


"... as you believe" : If you promise to refrain from telling me what I believe, I will promise to refrain from telling you what you believe. I'm of the opinion that I understand what I believe better than you do, and that you understand what you believe better than I do.

Is it possible that you have faith, but are not justified? If not, then how did Abraham have faith in Gen 12, but was not justified until some time later in Gen 15? If Abraham, by faith obeyed God, but didn't have justifying faith, how do you know that you don't have the same kind of less-than-justifying faith that Abraham supposedly had in Gen 12? How do you know when the less-than-justifying faith becomes justifying faith?

Calvinist seminarian:

"Is it possible that you have faith, but are not justified?" Not faith in the gospel, no. As I demonstrated from the verse in Genesis 15 leading up to Genesis 15:6, Abraham did not have faith in God's promise (i.e. the gospel according to Galatians 3:8) until that moment.

"If not, then how did Abraham have faith in Gen 12, but was not justified until some time later in Gen 15?" Abraham did not believe the gospel in Genesis 12. It was not until Genesis 15:6 that he did so, hence he was not justified until then. It is possible to do things 'by faith' as Abraham did, but not to have faith in the gospel. Reading Genesis 12 through 15:6 bears that out clearly.

"How do you know when the less-than-justifying faith becomes justifying faith?" When it actually trusts and relies in hope against hope upon the promise of God. This is very simple, straightforward, and clear in these passages in Genesis 12 and 15 we've been discussing.


Reformed [Calvinist] theologian C.H. Spurgeon, seems to be equating Abraham's faith of Gen 12 to the faith we Christians ought to have. He doesn't seem to think that Abraham's Gen 12 faith is a different kind of faith than saving faith, does he?


C.H. Spurgeon, The Obedience of Faith, A Sermon (No. 2195), August 21st, 1890,

"By faith Abraham when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went."—Hebrews 11:8.

The part of the text to which I shall call your attention lies in these words, "By faith Abraham obeyed." Obedience—what a blessing it would be if we were all trained to it by the Holy Spirit!...

The obedience of faith springs from a principle within, and not from compulsion without. It is sustained by the mind's soberest reasoning and the heart's warmest passion. ...

Yes, this is a chief ingredient of heaven—that we shall see the face of our Lord, and serve him day and night in his temple. Meanwhile, the more fully we obey at this present, the nearer we shall be to his temple-gate. May the Holy Spirit work in us, so that, by faith—like Abraham—we may obey ! ...

"For by faith Abraham obeyed." In every case where the father of the faithful obeyed, it was the result of his faith; and in every case in which you and I shall render true obedience, it will be the product of our faith. ...

Have I that faith which leads me to obey my God?—for obedience, if it be of the kind we are speaking of, is faith in action—faith walking with God, or, shall I say, walking before the Lord in the land of the living? ...

Let us consider, secondly, THE KIND OF OBEDIENCE WHICH FAITH PRODUCES. This I shall illustrate from the whole of the verse. Genuine faith in God creates a prompt obedience. "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed." There was an immediate response to the command. Delayed obedience is disobedience. I wish some Christians, who put off duty, would remember this.... remember that the obedience which comes of true faith is often bound to be altogether unreckoning and implicit; for it is written, "He went out, not knowing whither he went." God bade Abraham journey, and he moved his camp at once.

C. H. Spurgeon seems to assert that Abraham in Gen 12 had a faith that was a "genuine faith in God" and a "true faith." It doesn't seem he contends, as you do, that it is a less-than-justifying faith, does it?

BTW, read the entire sermon. It's looooooooong, but very good.

God comes down to walk with men who obey. If they walk with him, he walks with them. The Lord can only have fellowship with his servants as they obey. Obedience is heaven in us, and it is the preface of our being in heaven. Obedient faith is the way to eternal life—nay, it is eternal life revealing itself. (ibid)

According to Reformed [Calvinist] theologian C.H. Spurgeon, Abraham had "genuine faith in God" and a "true faith" in Gen 12. Yet, you say that he didn't. I think you are wrong. However, let's pretend you are right ...

How do you know that you, like Abraham in Gen 12, only THINK you trust the Lord, and that later, like Abraham in Gen 15 you might actually show that you DON'T TRUST the Lord as much as you previously thought?

You said you know you have justifying faith: "When it actually trusts and relies in hope against hope upon the promise of God."

That's a lot of nice words that basically says "I just know," right? You have "faith in your faith."

If I've understood you correctly, when one PERCEIVES that they have "trust" that "relies in hope against hope upon the promise of God" then you REALLY KNOW THAT YOU HAVE THE RIGHT KIND OF FAITH THAT JUSTIFIES. Yet, I submit, as did [your own Calvinist theologian] C.H. Spurgeon, that Abraham had "genuine faith" in Gen 12, which is exactly that "trust" that relied upon the promise of God.

If you read Gen 12 without knowledge of Gen 15, you would likely have concluded the same thing. I submit that our lives are like that. We don't know the Ch. 15 of our lives when we are still in Ch. 12. We don't know what kind of fear or temptation that will make us doubt, make us stumble. And so you cannot know if in YOUR "Chapter 15" you won't react the same way that Abraham did. You certainly have the faith that Abraham had in Gen 12, because you trust the Lord explicitly, like Abraham did and you are obedient to what you think the Lord has revealed to you. Wonderful. Yet you think you are justified, but can't really explain why, other than reiterating your FAITH in your FAITH.

Peter absolutely trusted the Lord before the passion, right? At least Peter, like you and I, KNEW with all our heart that we trust the Lord. Jesus even testified that Peter had faith that was given to him by God above, and He gave him the keys to the kingdom as a result. Jesus also changed his name from Simon to Kepha (Rock), just as God changed Abram's name to Abraham. Jesus says explicitly that Peter had faith when Jesus prays that Peter's faith may not fail. What happened? Peter denied Jesus three times.

Is it your opinion that before the passion, Peter did not have the kind of faith he needed for salvation? Why did Jesus pray that HIS FAITH, the kind that he in fact had at that moment, WOULD NOT FAIL??? Wouldn't it have been more appropriate for Jesus to pray that Peter have a different KIND of faith, the kind of faith that you insist that Abraham didn't have in Gen 12, but did have in Gen 15?

The question remains, how do you know that you don't have the same kind of faith that Peter had before the passion, and that Abraham had in Gen 12?

I'm certain if you asked these gentleman before they stumbled if they would ever stumble in their faith, they would have emphatically denied it. In fact, Peter did deny that he would deny Christ. He was as confident in his faith as you are as confident in yours.

I contend that these men had, as your own Reformed theologian C. H. Spurgeon puts it, "genuine faith," but that like ALL MEN, we might still stumble. That doesn't make it a DIFFERENT KIND of faith, just different DEGREES of faith. There are men of "little faith" as Jesus described his disciples, and there are men of "great faith" as Jesus described the centurion. Yet it's really just one kind of faith, unless we are speaking of the kind of faith of demons that James mentions.

You cannot know if you are a man of little or great faith, I think. The disciples no doubt thought they would never become "offended" (Gk 'skandalizo') in the Lord, but they would ALL do so, according to Jesus. Note that "skandalizo" is the word used to describe the Pharisee's reaction to Jesus' message. It is also the word used to describe the seed that falls upon stony ground in the parable of the seed. You can have true faith, but become skandalizo in times of tribulation. Peter and the apostles show us this. But what else do they show us (and this is the important point)? That we can, as Peter, the rock, become "turned back" (Gk 'epistrepho') to the Lord. Just as that other man called rock, Abraham did in Gen 15.


Unfortunately, the Calvinist seminarian didn't (or couldn't) answer my last response to him. He was probably a little nervous about his thesis contradicting the Calvinist theologian, C.H. Spurgeon. It seems evident to me the Calvinist notion of "eternal security" unravels if there are some "kinds" of faith that does not justify and some kinds that do. Where's the eternal security in that?

God bless,


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