Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Reformation Day Challenge

Let me encourage you to make a resolution this Reformation Day. Take up the challenge to read three key books on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Before I say a little about each book let me underscore a few reasons why we ought to know the truth of justification as well as we can.

1. We cannot afford to lose this truth. And truth can be lost sight of, and that not merely for a generation but even for centuries. When justification by faith alone is lost sight of not only are we left in darkness but we will grope around to find in ourselves and our works the ground of our acceptance with God. In a day when this truth is being questioned, attacked, denied, and revised thank God that he has raised up men who are able to teach it clearly from the Scriptures, able to refute opponents, and for publishers who are making new and old volumes on this truth available.

2. We cannot afford to live without this truth. We dare not approach God without the obedience and blood of Christ, and we cannot benefit from the work of Christ except by faith alone. We deliberately need to turn away from ourselves and toward Christ, resting and relying on him alone in order to be declared righteous before God.

3. We cannot afford to die without this truth. Once we learn that we have already passed from death to life, that for us looking to Christ alone by faith alone the judicial verdict of God has been passed and we are declared righteous in his sight, we may then approach death without fear of future condemnation. Iain Murray tells an encouraging story that illustrates this:
About a hundred years ago Alexander Whyte, as a pastor in Edinburgh, visited one of his elders who was dying. A book was close to the man's hand and, recognizing that it was not the Bible, Whyte looked on the open page to see what it might be. There his eyes fell on the words, "Chapter 11--Of Justification":
Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
Murray adds "We too will die, and when that day comes there will be no truth we shall value more than the doctrine thus stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith."

The first book that I would encourage you to read is John V. Fesko's recently published Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (available here). It is a substantial volume weighing in at 480 pages. This work seeks to set justification clearly in the framework of the history of salvation and the order of salvation. It also has an eye to recent controversies over justification by faith alone and seeks to understand and respond to challenges to the classic Reformed doctrine.

The second book takes us back to the 19th Century, where again the doctrine was under attack. Let me encourage you to read James Buchanan's classic work on The Doctrine of Justification (available here if you live in the US or here if you live in the UK). Buchanan deals with the OT and NT teaching on justification, justification in church history and various aspects of the doctrine.

Joel Beeke says:
Buchanan expounds the doctrine itself by covering the scriptural meaning of the term, its relation to the law and justice of God, its relation to the mediatorial work of Christ, its relation to grace and works, and more. The chapter on justification in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit is alone worth the price of the book.
Again it is a substantial volume at 540 pages.

The final book was written by the greatest theologian the British Isles has ever produced, John Owen. Owen's work The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ explained, confirmed, and vindicated) is available here (US) or here (UK). At 448 pages it is the shortest of the three! You will find that Owen's work, although written in the seventeenth century, has a contemporary feel to it. It is proof positive that the same debates are played out again and again in church history. This work will enrich your soul as well as inform your mind.

Reading, like running, requires commitment and development. If you want to run a marathon you have to train and build up your stamina over long distances. We should all aim to read so that we can move onto to more substantial literature.

Take time to work through these volumes carefully. Meditate on them, summarize their points and arguments, digest their teaching, speak to others about what the Lord has taught you. And on your knees thank him for having mercy upon you a sinner by not counting your sins against you, but instead counting, as if it were yours, the obedience of your Lord and Saviour, your representative and substitute, the only mediator Jesus Christ.

Twelve years ago I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Hans Kung's teaching on justification in relation to official Roman Catholic and classic Protestant views on the doctrine. I well remember at times spending twelve or thirteen hours a day working on it. I still remember the joy of laying my head on the pillow in the certain knowledge that it wasn't my works but Christ and his perfect work that was my righteousness before God. I thank God the same is true today and I can sing in the words of the old hymn:
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view
Happy Reformation day!

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