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Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

Introduction

It is sad that the sacrament that should most express the unity of the Body of Christ became, over the centuries, a major point of division, but grieving over the division doesn’t resolve or annihilate it. We must do our best to understand and practice it scripturally—and practice charity toward those who disagree with us about it, lovingly correcting particularly those whose doctrine jeopardizes the gospel by turning the Supper into a repeated sacrifice of Christ and so undermining the value of His once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

Primary New Testament texts related to it:

  1. Matthew 26:26-29 Now as they were eating [the Passover meal], Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,  28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
  2. Mark 14:22-25 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”  23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
  3. Luke 22:14-20 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
  4. 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

All of the Reformers rejected the following four elements of the dominant view of the Lord’s Supper in the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation, established by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

  1. Transubstantiation: “the body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wined, the bread being transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by the power of God.” Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) attempted, in Summa Theologica75.2, to explain it:
    1. Though the substance of the bread and wine are not annihilated, they are no longer present in the Eucharist because they have been converted into flesh and blood.
    2. The conversion is a miracle wrought by God.
    3. Christ is not “locally” in the sacrament, because He is present “by way of substance, not of spatial dimension” (Article 6, Bromiley’s paraphrase). (But if the substance is flesh and blood it necessarily has size and shape, and therefore also necessarily location.)
  2. Mass: the Eucharist was a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice to God to satisfy for sins.
  3. Because by transformation the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Christ locally present, believers could and should adore them as they adore God Himself, since Christ is God.
  4. The laity should receive only the body (the “transubstantiated” bread), not also the blood (the “transubstantiated” wine).

But the Reformers had their own disagreements over how Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Zwingli’s view
    1. The word “is” in “This is my body” and “This is my blood” expresses not identity but representation. Excerpt from Zwingli’s Letter to Matthew Alber, November 16, 1524:

      In response to the dream of Pharaoh, Joseph said, “The seven good cows are seven fertile years” (Genesis 41:26). And yet it cannot be argued that seven cows are seven years. Clearly the word “are” must mean “signify” or “foretell.” So the meaning is, “The seven good cows you saw when you slept foretell or signify seven fertile years.” Christ said, “I am the vine” (John 15:1). Yet He was not a vine, but looked upon Himself as having the characteristics of the vine. Again He said, “The seed is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11). Yet the seed is not the Word of God. Here again, “is” cannot mean “to be,” but is used to mean “signify.” For with these words Christ was explaining to the apostles the parable he had set forth concerning the sowing of the seed, saying, “the seed of which I speak is”—that is, signifies—“the Word of God.” We can find such phrases throughout the Bible, so there is no need for me to emphasize this point any further.

      Now let me examine Christ’s word [at the Last Supper]. Jesus took bread, and so on, with these words, “Take this and eat. This is My body which is given for you.” Here I interpret “is” to mean “signifies.” So, “Take this and eat. This signifies My body which is given for you.” Surely, then, the words must mean, “Take and eat. For this, which I now command you to do, will signify or call back to your minds My body which is given for you.” For He immediately added, “Do this as a memorial of Me.” Behold the purpose for which He commanded them to eat—as a commemoration of Himself. Paul puts it like this: “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). What else is Paul commanding but a public remembering of the Lord’s death? This feast of our Lord, or in Paul’s words the Lord’s Supper, was instituted in order that we should call to mind the death which Christ endured for us. Clearly this is the sign by which those who rely on Christ’s death and blood show forth their common faith with their brothers. Let the meaning of Christ’s words, then, be transparently clear: this meal is a symbol by which you call back into your minds the body of God’s true Son, your Lord and Master—the body that was given for you.”

    2. The Apostles Creed, which says that Christ “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead,” implies, by “is seated,” that Christ’s human nature is locally confined to heaven at the right hand of God.
    3. Zwingli identifies three misinterpretations of Christ’s words of institution of the Lord’s Supper:
      1. The Roman Catholic view: we literally eat Christ’s incarnate and crucified body and drink His blood because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
      2. Luther’s view: we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood under the bread and wine because they are physically present there due to what Luther called the “communication of attributes” between the divine and human natures—each nature taking on attributes of the other.
      3. A further Roman Catholic view: we literally eat the resurrected body and drink the resurrected blood of Christ because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
    4. Zwingli embraces Augustine’s statement: “What need of teeth and stomach? Believe and thou hast eaten. … He who believes in Him feeds on Him.”
    5. Nonetheless Zwingli affirmed that Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper in His divine nature. Geoffrey Bromiley summarizes Zwingli’s view: “… the whole Christ both ascends and is present always, but his ascension involved the human nature and his presence involves the divine. Since the human nature has ascended, Christ’s body is not eaten naturally and literally …. It is eaten sacramentally and spiritually …. To eat spiritually is to trust ‘with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ,’ while to eat sacramentally is ‘to eat … with heart and mind in conjunction with the sacrament.’ Those who eat without faith may be said improperly to eat sacramentally, but in no sense do they eat spiritually ….”
    6. Further, Zwingli believes the Supper, as Bromiley summarizes, “because it was instituted by Christ, testifies to historical facts, has the name of what it signifies, represents a high thing, and stands in analogy to the thing signified—Christ, our food, and ourselves, the one fellowship …. It also augments faith … even though it cannot give it …. It does this by claiming the four most important senses, indeed, all of them for the obedience of faith. We hear, see, taste, touch, and smell in it the goodness of Christ, and as we do so the soul’ tastes the sweet savor of heavenly hope.’ Finally, the sacrament as a pledge binds us together as ‘one body by the sacramental partaking of his body, for we are one body with him.’”
  1. Luther’s view
    1. In Blessed Sacrament of the True Body and Blood of Christ (1519), Luther seemed still to affirm transubstantiation and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
    2. In Treatise on the New Testament (1520), he rejects the sacrifice and no longer expresses his view of the presence of Christ in the sacrament by the term transubstantiation.
    3. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he calls transubstantiation mere human opinion.
    4. In This is my Body (1527) and Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), he opposes Zwingli’s view.
    5. Luther’s argument:
      1. Those who think “is” in “This is my body” expresses representation rather than identity must prove it, not just assert it.
        1. Yet his own interpretation, involved in his doctrine of consubstantiation, namely, that the body and blood of Christ are locally present “in” and “under” the bread and wine is itself not a literal reading of “is.”
      2. Further, the representation view involves great grammatical difficulties.
      3. Christ can be present in heaven, as the Creed affirms, and still be present on earth in the Supper, by the communication of attributes that results in the “ubiquity” of Christ’s body.
      4. To deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is to fall into the heresy of Nestorianism—failing to recognize the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one Person of Christ.
  • Calvin’s view (from Institutes, 4.17)
    1. Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic view, is neither scriptural nor logical and is to be rejected along with the doctrine of the mass, which is that the Eucharist is a repeated propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.
    2. Consubstantiation (Luther’s view that Christ’s body and blood are locally present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine by reason of the ubiquity of His body, which is entailed in the “communication of attributes”) is neither scriptural nor logical, for it is contrary to the nature of bodies to be ubiquitous. “For here it is not a question of what God could do, but what he willed to do. Now, we affirm that what was pleasing to him was done. But it pleased him that Christ be made like his brethren in all things except sin [Heb. 4:15; cf. ch. 2:17]. What is the nature of our flesh? Is it not something that has its own fixed dimension, is contained in a place, is touched, is seen? And why (they say) cannot God make the same flesh occupy many and divers places, be contained in no place, so as to lack measure and form? Madman, why do you demand that God’s power make flesh to be and not to be flesh at the same time! It is as if you insisted that he make light to be both light and darkness at the same time! But he wills light to be light; darkness, darkness; and flesh, flesh. Indeed, when he pleases he will turn darkness into light and light into darkness; but when you require that light and darkness not differ, what else are you doing than perverting the order of God’s wisdom? Flesh must therefore be flesh; spirit, spirit—each thing in the state and condition wherein God created it. But such is the condition of flesh that it must subsist in one definite place, with its own size and form. With this condition Christ took flesh, giving to it, as Augustine attests, incorruption and glory, and not taking away from it nature and truth.”
    3. Consubstantiation and the ubiquity through the communication of attributes on which it is based also contradict orthodox Christology, embraced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, of the union of two distinct natures in Christ, “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood,” “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.”
    4. Yet Calvin affirms the real presence of Christ in the Supper: “But we must establish such a presence of Christ in the Supper as may neither fasten him to the element of bread, nor enclose him in bread, nor circumscribe him in any way (all which things, it is clear, detract from his heavenly glory); finally, such as may not take form him his own stature, or parcel him out to many places at once, or invest him with boundless magnitude to be spread through heaven and earth. For these things are plainly in conflict with a nature truly human. … But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper—and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of mind, but to enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life.”
    5. The Lord’s Supper, with signs of bread and wine, provides spiritual food.
      1. The Supper is a “spiritual banquet wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality.”
        1. It is a “high mystery” and “sacred food” the benefit of which Satan seeks to steal from us by instituting confusion and discord.
        2. “First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent [not transubstantiate into, and not contain in and under them] for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ.”
        3. “Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.
          1. Indeed, by giving guarantees and tokens he makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes. For this very familiar comparison penetrates into even the dullest minds: just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are souls fed by Christ.
          2. We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink. … in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that he power of his life-giving death will be efficacious in us.”
        4. “As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.”
        5. “… from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament, we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.”
        6. “It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55].”
          1. My comment: So the Word is the real essence of the sacrament.
        7. In the Sacrament Christ “offers himself with all his benefits to us, and we receive him by faith. Therefore, the Sacrament does not cause Christ to begin to be the bread of life; but when it reminds us that he was made the bread of life, which we continually eat, and which gives us a relish and savor of that bread, it causes us to feel the power of that bread. For it assures us that all that Christ did or suffered was done to quicken us; and again, that this quickening is eternal, we being ceaselessly nourished, sustained, and preserved throughout life by it.”
        8. “We admit, meanwhile, that this is no other eating than of faith, as no other can be imagined. But here is the difference between my words and [Zwingli’s and Luther’s]: for them to eat is only to believe; I say that we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith. Or if you want it said more clearly, for them eating is faith; for me it seems rather to follow from … by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours—just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body.”
        9. “This life-giving communion is brought about by the Holy Spirit.”
        10. “Now, that sacred partaking of his flesh and blood, by which Christ pours his life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, he also testifies and seals in the Supper—not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises. And truly he offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at that spiritual banquet, although it is received with benefit by believers alone, who accept such great generosity with true faith and gratefulness of heart.”
        11. On the relation of the outward sign and the invisible reality: “… the sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things: physical signs, which, thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed through the symbols themselves.”
        12. “… whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither them mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.”

 

 

Featured image “At the Table,” by David Mulder, Flickr Creative Commons

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Evangelizing Our Children: A Reformed and Covenantal Practice

Part One: Theological Foundations

Christians of Reformed persuasion, like myself, have always taken great comfort from the words of the Apostle Peter to the crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost. “The promise,” he told them in Acts 2:39, “is for you and your children.” Our federal, or covenantal, theology recognizes in that statement a wonderful truth: that God’s promises are multi-generational, that fathers represent their children in God’s sight, and that therefore the children of believers enjoy a tremendous privilege that the children of unbelievers don’t. Paul’s assurance in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the children even of just one believing parent are “holy,” set apart, reinforces our confidence as we think of our children, as does his statement to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
We find the root of this comfort in the covenant between God and Abraham. In Genesis 17:7, God said to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [literally, seed, singular, as Paul insists in Galatians 3:16]–I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” We recognize that this federal teaching lies at the root of our practice of infant baptism, as it lay at the root of the Old Testament saints’ practice of infant circumcision. The covenant child is to have the covenant sign.
He is also to be raised faithfully in the covenant signified by his baptism, reflecting God’s comment in Genesis 18:19, “I have chosen [Abraham], so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.” Thus covenantal believers take very seriously God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” We attend carefully–or we should, anyway–to the words of Psalm 78:1-7:
Listen, O my people, to my instruction; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob And appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers That they should teach them to their children, That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, That they may arise and tell them to their children, That they should put their confidence in God And not forget the works of God, But keep His commandments.
But lately in some Reformed circles now widely known as the “Federal Vision” movement, this covenantal teaching is twisted so that it becomes a guarantee–or nearly a guarantee?–of salvation to every child born to a believer–or at least to every baptized child born to a believer. In addressing the problem of how one is to have assurance of salvation, Reverend Steve Wilkins of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America), in Monroe, Louisiana, said, “Don’t get all tangled up trying to see whether you have sincere faith in Christ. Look to your baptism!” Then he explained,
when we say . . . ‘Look to your baptism,’ we’re talking about looking to Christ in the covenant, and realizing what you can know for certain. You cannot know if you were ever sincere. You cannot know if you really meant it when you asked Jesus into your heart and threw the pine cone into the fire. You can’t know those. Those questions are unanswerable. Were you really given a new heart? Well, you can’t answer that question. God knows. You don’t know. What you can know is that you have been baptized and you have the Lord’s Supper.
This view helps pastorally, he said, in that “It makes our standing before God and that of our children plain, and yet it prevents presumption. . . . We belong to Christ. Baptism is the infallible sign and seal of this . . . .”[1] More conclusively, Wilkins wrote elsewhere, “If [someone] has been baptized, he is in covenant with God”; “covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ. . . . Because being in covenant with God means being in Christ, those who are in covenant have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.”[2]
Similarly, Reverend John Barach, now pastor of Reformation Covenant Church (a congregation of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals) in Medford, Oregon, said,
There is nothing better, nothing more glorious than living in covenant with God, being brought right into the family life of the Triune God . . . . Because we are united with Christ, because He is our covenantal representative, when He was raised from the dead and vindicated by God, we were vindicated by God, justified. In Christ we have sanctification. . . ., we have new life . . . [and] the Spirit . . . [and] have been glorified. . . . But who shares in those blessings? . . . who is in Christ? . . . those people are in Christ who have been baptized into Christ. . . . there is an objective covenant made with believers and their children. Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the Triune God. The Bible doesn’t know about a distinction between being internally in the covenant, really in the covenant, and being only externally in the covenant . . . . Every baptized person is truly a member of God’s covenant. . . . every baptized person is in Christ and therefore shares in his new life . . . .[3]
Steve Schlissel, pastor of the independent Messiah’s Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, wrote on a whiteboard during a colloquium on Federal Vision theology in August 2003 hosted by Knox Theological Seminary, “The children of believers are saved.” Showing a little more restraint, popular pastor and author Reverend Douglas Wilson of Christ Church (another congregation of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals, a denomination Wilson founded) of Moscow, Idaho, wrote,
In faith, we want to say that children of believers are saved. But we are not making a categorical statement of the “All P are Q” kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too. Now these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment. How are we to account for this? We all acknowledge that some of our children grow up and depart from the living God. We see the same kind of thing with adult converts. Many of them have fallen away also. Have the promises of God fallen to the ground in either instance?
The question of levels of discourse is central in understanding this. On one level, all of us confess that some children of believers are reprobate, and will eventually fall away. On another level of discourse, we say that God is God to our children. In preaching, in catechesis, in liturgy, the second level of discourse is operative. This level is operative because faith in the promises requires it. But an important point to note is that we are not saying contradictory things within one level of discourse. Nor are we denying the first level of discourse.[4]
Wilson, recognizing that some baptized children of believers will spend eternity in hell, tries to escape the logical consequences of statements like those by his fellow Federal Visionists Wilkins and Barach by a logical sleight of hand, saying that when he and his comrades “say that children of believers are saved” they “are not making a categorical statement of the ‘All P are Q’ kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children.” But Wilson ought to know that children of believers are saved simply is a categorical statement.
Between the categories (a) children of believers and (b) people who are saved, there can be only four relationships:
  1. All children of believers are people who are saved [All a are b.].
  2. No children of believers are people who are saved [No a are b.].
  3. Some children of believers are people who are saved [Some a are b.].
  4. Some children of believers are not people who are saved [Some a are not b.].
If, when the Federal Visionists, as part of their strategy to deliver people from “unanswerable” questions about whether they are true believers and direct them instead to the objectivity of the covenant, insist that the children of believers are saved, then they must be asserting one of these relationships. If they are asserting (1), “All children of believers are people who are saved,” then it follows logically (by the type of immediate deduction called obversion) that no children of believers are not people who are saved, and consequently that (2), “No children of believers are people who are saved,” and (4), “Some children of believers are not people who are saved,” are false, for they are the contrary and the contradictory to “All children of believers are people who are saved.” If that is what they mean, then they have provided (rightly or wrongly–but at least validly) the assurance they intend. But if they are asserting only (3), “Some children of believers are people who are saved,” then they can infer absolutely nothing about the truth of (4), “Some children of believers are not people who are saved,” and their attempt to provide assurance by appeal to the objectivity of the covenant collapses.
Wilson’s attempt to justify such inconsistencies by appeal to “levels of discourse” does not suffice. What it really leads to is precisely the sort of upper-story/lower-story dualism against which the late Francis Schaeffer indefatigably warned. Does Wilson, after all, mean to tell us that at one “level of discourse”–whatever that means–all children of believers are saved, while at another “level of discourse” some are not saved? What parents crave regarding their children is not “Well, on this level of discourse, your child is saved, but on another level, he might not be.” What fretting church members crave regarding their own assurance is not “Well, on this level of discourse, your baptism assures you that you’re saved, but on another level it doesn’t.” Such equivocation is not the responsibility of the minister of the Word of God, who is called to sound a clear trumpet (1 Corinthians 14:8), whose “Yes” should be “Yes” and whose “No” should be “No” (Matthew 5:37), whose message is to be “not Yes and No, but . . . always Yes” because in Christ “all [not just some!] of the promises of God” are “Yes” and “Amen” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20). No one will spend eternity blessed in heaven in one “level of discourse” and cursed in hell in another.
The trouble–the reason their effort to provide assurance of salvation by telling people to “look to their baptism,” or to their parentage–is that the Federal Visionists have not provided any promises of God of type (1), “All children of believers–or all baptized persons–are people who are saved.” Consequently it is of no use for Wilson to say, “we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too,” and think that is adequate ground for assuring believers, because of the objectivity of the covenant, of their children’s salvation (or for assuring baptized persons of their own).
A major part of the debate over the Federal Vision is precisely over whether indeed the Bible does teach that all children of believers (or all baptized persons) are saved. It will not do simply to assume that conclusion as a premise. Neither is it of use for Wilson to say, “these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment.” That in itself assumes what the Federal Visionists must prove–that God has promised the salvation of all children of believers (or all baptized persons). For if instead God has promised the salvation of only some children of believers (and of some baptized persons), then the damnation of some (of either) cannot be raised as an instance of the non-fulfillment of His promises. Indeed, if He has not promised the salvation of any children of believers or baptized persons simply because they are children of believers or baptized persons, then it is possible for any or even all children of believers, or baptized persons, to be damned.
Scripture clearly teaches us that all God’s promises are perfectly fulfilled (2 Corinthians 1:20; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:13-20). If it appears to us that one of them goes finally unfulfilled, then we have misunderstood either the promise (and this is what the Federal Visionists do) or the phenomena (i.e., the child’s parents or the baptized were not really believers). That is, we have mistaken either the major or the minor premise (or both). Take the syllogism,
  1. All children of believers are saved.
  2. Richard is a child of believers.
  3. Therefore Richard is saved.
In their attempt to comfort parents by reference to the objectivity of the covenant, the Federal Visionists want to affirm this. But they know that, as Wilson put it, “some of our children grow up and depart from the living God.” Consequently, when challenged, they (rightly, though inconsistently!) shrink from the conclusion. But they can avoid that conclusion only if they deny one of the premises. That Richard is a child of believers (the minor premise) is assumed, so they can’t deny the minor premise. They must then deny the major and admit that some children of believers are not saved. Once they have done that, however, nothing follows, for the resulting argument,
  1. Some children of believers are saved.
  2. Richard is a child of believers.
  3. Therefore Richard is saved.
commits the fallacy of undistributed middle. It tells us only about some children of believers, not about all of them.[5]
It is clear, then, that simply being the child of believers, or even being the baptized child of believers, does not guarantee salvation. As Paul explained in Romans 2:12-29, it is not sufficient simply to “bear the name ‘Jew’” (that is, to be a covenant child) and to be circumcised.(that is, to bear the mark of the covenant).
For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
What then are we to make of those precious passages with which we began? What of Peter’s statement, “The promise is for you and your children”? What of Paul’s that the child of even just one believing parent is “holy”? What of his promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”? What of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you”? Perhaps we need to look at them a little more carefully.
Consider first Peter’s comment in Acts 2:39. Thus far we have quoted only part of it. The whole of it is, “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Are those who insist that here is a promise of the salvation of the children of believers as quick to say that here is a promise of salvation “for all who are far off”? Those are not simply the children of believers; those include all men everywhere in the world. But does God promise salvation to all men everywhere in the world. Certainly not. Neither, then, does He promise salvation to all the children of believers. What does He promise, then, to all the children of believers and to all people everywhere? Look at verse 38–and I’m going to use my own very literal translation here to make clear the grammatical cause-and-effect relationship that is clear in the Greek but ordinarily gets obscured in English translations: “Y’all repent for the remission of y’all’s sins, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and y’all will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (As an aside, let me explain: The command to repent is in second person plural, while the command to be baptized is in third person singular; the “your” modifying the sins to be remitted is second person plural, not singular. The grammatical connection, therefore, is between repentance and remission, not between baptism and remission. But refuting baptismal remission isn’t the topic of today’s talk, so we’ll leave that alone now and return to the point.) The promise is conditional: If you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. That promise does indeed apply to each and every child of each and every believer; and it also applies to each and every other person who ever lived or ever will live.
Consider Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the child of even one believer is “holy.” Does this mean no such child will go to hell? Certainly not. The Greek word hagioi, “holy,” means simply “set apart,” or “devoted to the gods” or, of course, in the Bible, “to God.” Elsewhere the Bible tells us that “He who believes in [Christ] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Granted this, it follows that the unbelieving spouse of 1 Corinthians 7:14 is not saved. Yet Paul says the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified,” the Greek verb hagiazo, that is, “made holy.” It must be possible, then, for someone to be “holy” without being saved.
Consider Paul’s promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Does that imply that whenever a head of household believes, every one of his household will be saved along with him, regardless of his or her faith? Certainly not. Clearly Paul’s point is that the same promise that applies to the jailer applies to everyone in his family: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” But there is no promise at all here to one who doesn’t believe.
And finally consider God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” Does this imply that every physical descendant of Abraham–or even every one of his own direct, first-generation offspring–would be saved, that none of them would go to hell, all would go to heaven? Certainly not. As Paul explained in Romans 9:6-8,
. . . they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “Through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
Likewise he wrote in Galatians 4:22-31:
. . . it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; for more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.” And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
Notice that: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.” Notice again: “the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. . . . [and] he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit.” Paul equates being born of the flesh with being born of the bondwoman, and being born of the promise with being born of the Spirit and of the free woman. He who is born only of the flesh is not a child of God; he who is born of the promise, of the Spirit, of the free woman, is a child of God.
Haven’t we heard some similar phrases somewhere else? Yes! In John 1:10-13, John tells us that the incarnate Word, Jesus, “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world”–those who had no special relationship to Abraham–did not know Him. He came to His own”–that is, to the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh, “and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them”–whether those of the world, or those of Abraham according to the flesh–“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
But if all this is so–if indeed there is no blanket promise of salvation to the children of believers–then what advantage is there to being born to Christian parents? Is covenant theology irrelevant? Certainly not! Haven’t you heard that question before, but slightly revised? Of course you have. In Romans 3:1-2, Paul wrote, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
That is it! “First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” That is an advantage that must not be minimized. It is a tremendous advantage!
. . . for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you. [1 Peter 1:23-25]
Stop and think about that for a moment. Linger over it. “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off.” That is true of each and every believing parent. Every believing father is like grass. Every believing mother is like grass. Every one of us will wither and die, not only when the blood stops coursing through our veins but also every day when we sin and show our children that we, unlike the Word, are fallible. “But the Word of the Lord endures forever.” “The Scripture cannot be broken.” Unlike us, “the law of the Lord is perfect.” “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still!” It is not on our birth to a believing father or mother that our salvation rests, but on the living and abiding Word of God, that powerful Word that created the universe and can make a new creation out of any human being. My children’s salvation depends not on me, and not on my wife, but on God Himself speaking the gospel to them in His Word–that gospel that “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16), that is, whether he is a child of Abraham according to the flesh or a child of the world according to the flesh; whether he is a child of a believer, or a child of a pagan. The message to everyone is the same: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”
Indeed, everyone’s salvation depends–whether he is born of believers or of unbelievers–not on bloodline, or on the will of the flesh, or on the will of man, but on the will and Word of God. Is there then no advantage to being born to believers? Of course there is! Who is more likely to be exposed to the life-giving Word of God day by day? The child of a Muslim, or the child of two faithful Christians? The child of a humanist, or the child of a faithful Baptist? The child of a neo-pagan, or the child of a faithful Lutheran? The child of a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Taoist, or even of an irreligious American consumerist, or the child of a godly Presbyterian? Of course there is an advantage to being born of Christian parents! What other children have such a privilege as to hear the Word in the home, to be brought up in the church where they are exposed to the preaching and teaching of the Word week in and week out and where their friends and Sunday school teachers and friends’ parents all encourage them to believe and obey the Word? Where they learn the great hymns of the faith and soon have them in memory? Where all around them strive to live as Scripture teaches them to live?
That is the great advantage of being born in the faith. Yet even that does not entail that every child of believers will be saved. In Part Two I will look specifically at Christian parents’ responsibility.

Part Two: Practical Application

In Part One I argued that while the Scriptures do not guarantee the salvation of every child of believers, any more than they guarantee the salvation of every baptized person, nonetheless they do teach that the children of believers have a great advantage over the children of nonbelievers. Still, however, the promise of salvation is to all who believe, and only to them. Does either this shared promise, universally applicable to everyone–“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”–or the fact that believers’ children have that advantage–particularly that they are in church and Sunday school and, one hopes, Christian school rather than public school–relieve Christian parents of responsibility for their salvation? Can we say, “Oh, I take my children to church and Sunday school. They hear the gospel there. That’s enough. I don’t need to do more”? Or can we say, “Oh, I want my child to make up his own mind, so we know he’s sincere. So I’m not going to push the gospel on him”? Or can we say, “After all, God is sovereign. If my child is predestined to believe, he will. I don’t have to worry about it. In fact, I can’t make any difference I God’s plan”?
Does any of this relieve Christian parents of responsibility for our children’s salvation? Certainly not! Our responsibility is rooted not in what we are able to achieve but in what we are commanded by God to do. He tells us to command our children to keep the way of the Lord, and certainly that “way of the Lord” includes faith in Jesus Christ. We are to command our children–not beg them, but command them–to trust in the Lord Jesus for their salvation. And when we do so, we are also to teach them the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” and its implication, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). “Child, God tells you to obey me, and I tell you to trust in Christ.”
The words of God, both law and gospel, are to be on our hearts. We are to teach them diligently to our sons and talk of them when we sit in our houses and when we walk by the way and when we lie down and when we rise up. We are to wear them as signs on our hands and make them frontals on our foreheads. We are to write them on the doorposts of our houses and on our gates.
What I have said thus far has been meant to drive home one main point and one sub point.
First, the main point: We must evangelize our children. Doing so doesn’t mean treating them like pagans, as some hyper-federalists would have us believe. It means treating them like children according to the flesh–covenant children, yes, just like both Isaac and Esau–but children according to the flesh, and calling them to be children according to the promise. It means telling them the basic facts of the gospel at every opportunity, before and after they ever profess to believe: that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures. It means teaching them, time after time, before and after their apparent conversions, that through the law comes the knowledge of sin and that therefore no flesh will be justified by the works of the law, but that we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law. It means repeating to them over and over again, before and after they are admitted to the Lord’s Table, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
It doesn’t mean my wife and I must assume our child doesn’t believe until he offers us some sophisticated testimony adequate to convince the most jaundiced board of credobaptist elders that he’s ready for baptism, or the most jaundiced session of Scottish or Dutch paedobaptist elders that he’s ready for the Lord’s Supper. Far from it! We want every one of our children to be able to testify, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Jesus and know He loves me and trust in Him alone for my salvation.”
We teach our children the law and that they are sinners. We teach them the gospel and that if they will trust in Christ, their sins will be forgiven. We command them to believe. For incentive we convey to them God’s marvelous promise that if they believe they will have eternal life, reconciliation with God, justification, God’s preserving and sanctifying power, and finally glorification in heaven, and if they don’t, they will suffer in hell forever. And when they join us in expressing their faith in Jesus, and in singing
  • “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”—or
  • “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee. Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure–cleanse me from its guilt and power”–or
  • or “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”—or
  • when they recite with us and the whole church the Apostles’ Creed—or
  • when they join us in reciting the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?” “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”—
When they sing those hymns and recite that creed and that catechism with us, we don’t say, “Sorry, kids, but we don’t believe you. We think you’re little liars. You don’t really believe. You don’t really love Jesus. Tell us again next year, when your life measures up a little better, and we’ll see if you can convince us then.” No, no, no! We realize that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked and that we don’t know it, but we also realize that we have no right to presume our children guilty of lying about their faith without convincing evidence. And so we treat them as truth tellers until they give us reason to do otherwise.
Second, the sub point: We can evangelize our children, and we can have confidence that our labor will not be in vain. Although the Bible nowhere guarantees to any parent the salvation of any child, it does encourage us to believe that God works through means to achieve His ends and that we are among His most prominent means in the salvation of our children. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” says Proverbs 22:6; “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Being a proverb, this is to be understood as a generalization, stating not a universal truth but a usual truth, but it still gives great comfort to those parents who diligently, prayerfully, consistently, persistently, humbly, trustingly, fervently, zealously raise their children in the faith. It gives no comfort whatever to the lazy, careless parent who neglects to instruct his child in law and gospel, but it gives great hope to the faithful, who can say, “Though I am like grass, and I’ll wither and fade, nonetheless the Word of the Lord endures forever!”
That there is normally a connection between a parent’s faithful teaching of law and gospel to his child and that child’s believing is implicit in one of the qualifications of an elder. He must have “children who believe” (Titus 1:6). Believing children are evidence of this elder’s ability to manage his own household well, to “[hold] fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”–His child raises an objection to the truth of the gospel, and this man, qualified to be an elder, is able to answer it, “to refute” that child who contradicts!–Believing children are evidence of this elder’s being “above reproach.” Indeed, they are even evidence of his being “the husband of one wife,” or literally, “a onewoman man,” because his own love for his wife, and his faithfulness to her, will testify to his children of Christ’s love for and faithfulness to His bride, the church.
Recognizing this connection between faithful parenting and the salvation of our children no more compromises the sovereignty of God in salvation, or the uniqueness of Christ as Savior, than does Paul’s writing to Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). It no more compromises the sovereignty of God than Paul’s asking, “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). God works through means. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Whether that Word is spoken to the whole congregation by the minister or to the children by believing parents, it remains the Word by which God begets people to new life.
These two points being made, let me conclude by speaking to how we can evangelize our children. And honestly, brothers and sisters, it isn’t all that difficult, at least not in principle. It is difficult in execution, because it requires self-discipline, patience, consistency, hard work, diligence, persistence, zeal, and prayer, sometimes for many long years. But in concept, it isn’t difficult, and I hope to persuade you that even in execution it is within your reach.
The fundamental thing is this: Your children will be more likely to embrace your faith in direct proportion to the extent to which you embrace your faith. The more they see that you, though you know yourself to be a guilty sinner fully deserving God’s wrath, nonetheless “[believe] to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and [act] differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come,” but principally that you “[accept, receive, and rest] upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith describes the acts of saving faith, the more your children will be likely to follow in your footsteps, for it is ordinarily the case, as Jesus put it about Himself and His own Father, “whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19).
Now for three concrete, practical things you can do to ensure that your children frequently, regularly encounter the saving gospel in a context that will encourage them to believe it.
First–and I believe this is foremost in the children’s younger years–involve them regularly, frequently, preferably daily, indeed if at all possible twice a day, in family worship. I understand that not every family is able to schedule morning and evening family devotions every day. But I do believe that far more families could do it if they would. It requires making choices, setting priorities, realizing that there is no higher calling for Christian parents than raising their own children in the faith, ministering the Word of God to them, day in and day out. For about the first sixteen or seventeen years after the birth of the first of our seven children, we were able. As he and his first two sisters got older and older and took on more and more responsibilities outside the home, and as we took a grandparent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease into our home, we had to modify that. Still we managed to gather for family worship morning and evening most days, but we had to be flexible about when, where, and sometimes whether. Even so, the children recognize that family worship is top priority for us, so that even though we don’t do it as consistently today as we once did, nonetheless we make great sacrifices to ensure that we can do it whenever possible. That in itself testifies to them of its importance.
Many parents are intimidated by the idea of trying to have family worship. I believe this usually stems from trying to make it too complicated. It should be simple, but we don’t always approach it that way. We husbands, I think, have a macho tendency to figure that we’re going to do family worship, and we’re going to do it right! And so we set a standard way too high, and predictably we fail.
In the first year of our marriage, my wife and I tried to begin having devotions together. I got out Matthew Henry’s Commentary, and we would read a chapter from the Bible, and then read aloud through the commentary. That worked–about once or twice! We were overwhelmed, and in short order we quit. We didn’t try anything else for a while. Each time we tried, we bit off more than we could chew. It wasn’t until our first child was three or four that we finally hit on what has worked for our family ever since, and it’s simple.
We sit down together, we read a chapter (sometimes more, sometimes less, but usually a chapter) of the Bible aloud, we might make a few comments on it but more often don’t, we pray, and then we sing a hymn or chorus or children’s Bible song together. That’s it. I don’t try to play expert Bible teacher every day, or even once a week. We just read the Word, working our way through whole books of the Bible, and pray, and sing, and we let God minister to us. While we make a special point of reading repeatedly through the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Gospels, and Romans, we make sure that we read through the whole Bible over and over through the years.
Occasionally, for certain periods, we have added catechism to our family worship–teaching the children, by daily repetition, to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That has been a tremendously effective way to give them a solid, basic, systematic understanding of the Christian faith. But catechizing has come and gone, as one batch of children has completed the Catechism and another waits to become old enough to follow it well. (We have also found the Children’s Catechism, based on the Shorter, helpful.) What doesn’t come and go is the three-step basic of family worship: read the Bible, pray, and sing.
Many families find the idea of trying to sing together intimidating. Our daughter Susan, when she was about 19, set out to pull the fangs from that monster. A fine pianist, she produced an album of four CDs of piano accompaniment to eighty-eight fine hymns, with a brief musical introduction to each hymn, followed by playing it as many times as it has verses, just as if she were accompanying our own family worship or a church congregation singing. The CD insert includes a list of the hymns by title and a table telling the page numbers in several widely used hymnals. Called “Listen While We Sing,” the album is available from Great Commission Publishers or over the web at www.parnassum.net, along with several single-CD albums: “Redeeming Love,” “Chiefest Joy,” and “Silent Word,” all of them meditative piano treatments of hymns or psalms.
Now let me insert two comments on the side: First, notice that I said hymns. I didn’t say shallow worship choruses. The great hymns of the faith have for centuries been among the most important media for transmitting the faith. Our children have been brought up on such hymns, and through them they have learned much of their systematic theology. Susan has gone so far as to say that she has never encountered an orthodox doctrine for the first time outside a hymn. Second, we must not let our children’s formal schooling undermine what they’re taught at home. There is no justification for Christian parents’ sending their children to Pharaoh’s academy when they have the legal option of either home schooling or private Christian schooling.
Second—and this becomes increasingly important as children grow older and nearer to going out on their own—we need to inculcate the discipline and habit of personal devotions among our children. Again, simplicity is key. Simply reading a chapter of the Bible and praying are all the children need to do. If they want to keep some kind of journal, a prayer list, or write notes on what they’ve read, that’s fine, but it isn’t necessary, and if pushing for it intimidates them, it’s best not to. Several of our children have taken up blogging, and frequently they write about Bible passages they’ve read, or Christian books they’ve read, or sermons they’ve heard. The blogging technology seems attractive to them, and it’s also a way for them to share their thoughts with their friends. (One caution, however: the blogosphere can be dangerous, so, when they were young and in our home, we required our children to keep their blogs private, with only certain invited persons, with passwords, permitted to enter and comment.)
Third—and this remains most important from birth to leaving the nest to raising their own families—it is absolutely essential to have our children, every Lord’s day, in the worship of God, under the preaching of the Word, in the fellowship of the saints, partaking regularly of the Lord’s Supper from their earliest ability to confess their faith. While personal and family devotions are important, we must face the fact that the Bible puts much more emphasis on corporate worship, on the church gathered, than on personal or family worship.
Notice that I said the children should be in the worship service. In principle, we don’t believe in “children’s church.” As illustrated in the great worship service during the restoration of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, not only men and women (adults) but all who can understand (down to little children) should be gathered together in worship for the hearing of the Word (Nehemiah 8:3). We believe the youngest children need to learn to show reverence to God by sitting still and quietly in worship service. We believe that very early on they begin to be able to follow some of the Scripture reading, some of the preaching, and some of the hymns and prayers of the worship service. At a far younger age than many people think, they become able to participate intelligently in the whole worship service. And the age at which they reach that point only gets delayed, we believe, by sending them to “children’s church.” Further, we are not raising children. We are raising adults. They just happen to be children at the moment, but they’re going to become adults, and that’s our goal. Consequently, we want our children to emulate adults, or at least significantly older children, not other children of their own ages. That’s one reason why we home school. It’s also another reason why we keep them in worship service, and generally also in adult Sunday school classes, with us.
You might be wondering, “So what’s been the result in your own family?”
I wish I could just say, “All seven of our children clearly and credibly profess faith in Christ alone for their salvation.” But I can’t. Some question that. As I look back on my practice, I think sometimes my actions contradicted my words. I taught them the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But I think sometimes I treated them in a way that implied that they needed, somehow, to earn my love. In other words, sometimes I didn’t live the gospel for them very well. So today, about a decade after I first wrote this essay, some are walking securely in that faith. Some are debating in their minds what the gospel really is. Some have reacted to sins they’ve observed in me, or in our churches, by distancing themselves. That causes me no end of grief, but they’re all adults now, and while I can pray for them and, when they welcome it, talk with them about such things, they’re no longer under my authority, and I can’t, and must not, treat them as if they were. So I pray for them.
But this much I know: They all know their Bibles well. They know how to pray, how to sing God’s praises. For most of them, the Lord’s Day remains the high point of their week, when they get to enjoy corporate worship and then fellowship with their brothers and sisters in Christ. All are mature, thoughtful, loving, wonderful adults for whom I thank God over and over again, even while I continue to pray for them to grow in the faith once for all delivered to the saints, for “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
Postscript: Notice that I’ve said nothing here about vacation Bible school or any similar programs like that depicted in the photograph above. Does God use them to reach children? Undoubtedly. Should Christian parents rely on them? No.
Featured image: Children in Vacation Bible School, U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea (Photo credit: U.S. Army via Flickr Creative Commons)
Endnotes
[1] Steve Wilkins, “Covenant and Baptism,” taped lecture at the 2003 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, transcript, 11-12, italicized emphases original to the transcript and reflecting the speaker’s voice in delivery; boldfaced emphasis added.
[2] Steve Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, edited by E. Calvin Beisner (Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 254-269, at 267, 262.
[3] John Barach, “Covenant and History,” 2002 AAPC lecture transcript, pp. 45-48, boldfaced emphasis added; compare Barach, “Covenant and Election,” 2002 AAPC lecture transcript, p. 86, lines 15-27, for the same point.
[4] Douglas Wilson, “Union with Christ: An Overview of the Federal Vision,” in Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons, 1-8, at 7.
[5] The interaction above with Wilkins, Barach, Schlissel, and Wilson is adapted from my “Concluding Comments on the Federal Vision,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons, 304-325, at 307-309 and 321-323.
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How did the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church Define Justification, and Why?

Introduction

Olli-Pekka Vainio, in “Martin Luther and Justification,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia:

The common understanding of the Reformers was that the doctrine of justification is the one by which the church stands or falls (doctrina stantis et cadentis ecclesiae), even though this particular phrase did not become widely used until the 17th century. Nevertheless, the doctrine of justification was without doubt among the most important themes debated during, and long after, the Reformation. For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the central doctrine; everything else flows from it, and all the other doctrines can be referred to it. Luther teaches in his Smalcald Articles (1537): “On this article [i.e., justification] stands all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore, we must be quite certain and have no doubt about it. Otherwise everything is lost, and the pope and the devil and whatever opposes us will gain victory and be proved right.”

  1. Biblical background

    1. That God justifies sinners is a core teaching of Scripture.
      1. Isaiah 45:22-25 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  23 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’  24 Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  25 In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
      2. Romans 4:5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness
      3. Romans 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
      4. Romans 3:30 He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
      5. Galatians 3:8 the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
      6. Romans 3:20-26 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
      7. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
    2.  On what grounds might God justify people?
      1. On the grounds of their own righteousness, that is, obedience to the law?
        1. On the one hand, Romans 2:13 it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified
        2. But on the other hand, Romans 3:20 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
      2. On the grounds of God’s/Christ’s own righteousness credited/imputed to them.
        1. Romans 3:20-24 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
        2. Romans 5:9-19 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.  12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.  14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.  15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.  16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought   17 If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
    3. How do we receive this justification?
      1. By obedience to the law—by doing righteousness and being righteous ourselves and so meriting our being justified—our justification?
        1. Romans 3:20 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
        2. Romans 4:1-2 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?  2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
        3. Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
      2. By faith receiving as a gift of grace the righteousness of Christ as our own and in the place of our unrighteousness.
        1. Romans 3:20-24 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
        2. Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
        3. Romans 4:2-8  if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:  7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
        4. Romans 4:22-25 faith was “counted to him [Abraham] as righteousness.”  23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,  24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,  25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our
        5. Romans 5:1 since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
        6. Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
        7. Romans 10:10 For with the heart one believes and is justified,
        8. Galatians 2:16 a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be
        9. Galatians 3:11 no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
        10. Galatians 3:24 the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
        11. Titus 3:4-7 when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
      3. What about what James says about Abraham and Rahab?
        1. James 2:20-26 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?  21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;  23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”- and he was called a friend of God.  24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?  26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
        2. The context: James 2:14-20 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder!  20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
          1. Paul addresses the ground on which God justifies us: Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith, which God sees directly.
          2. James addresses the ground on which other men justify us: the works, which men can see, that are the fruit of faith, which men cannot see.
          3. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), XV: “in this matter we are not speaking of a fictitious, empty, lazy and dead faith, but of a living, quickening faith. It is and is called a living faith because it apprehends Christ who is life and makes alive, and shows that it is alive by living works. And so James does not contradict anything in this doctrine of ours. For he speaks of an empty, dead faith of which some boasted but who did not have Christ living in them by faith”
          4. Formula of Concord (1577) III.42: “when we speak of faith, how it justifies, the doctrine of St. Paul is that faith alone, without works, justifies, Rom. 3:28, inasmuch as it applies and appropriates to us the merit of Christ, as has been said. But if the question is, wherein and whereby a Christian can perceive and distinguish, either in himself or in others, a true living faith from a feigned and dead faith (since many idle, secure Christians imagine for themselves a delusion in place of faith, while they nevertheless have no true faith), the Apology [Defense of the Augsburg Confession] gives this answer: James calls that dead faith where good works and fruits of the Spirit of every kind do not follow.”
    4. What is justification? What does it mean to justify someone?
      1. In the Old Testament
        1. Job 32:2 Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God.
        2. Job 33:31-32 [Elihu says to Job:] Pay attention, O Job, listen to me; be silent, and I will speak.  32 If you have any words, answer me; speak, for I desire to justify
        3. Psalm 51:4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
        4. Isaiah 45:23-25 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’  24 “Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  25 In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
        5. Proverbs 17:15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.
      2. In the New Testament
        1. Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
        2. Matthew 12:36-37 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,  37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
        3. Luke 7:35 wisdom is justified by all her children.
        4. Luke 10:25-37 behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
          1. Note that the lawyer who wanted to “justify” himself wound up justifying the Samaritan by his answer to Jesus’ question, “Which … proved to be a neighbor?”—“The one who showed him mercy.”
        5. Luke 16:14-15 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.  15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.
        6. Luke 18:10-14 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
        7. Acts 19:40 [In the midst of a riot against Paul’s preaching, the town clerk of Ephesus said to the crowd:] we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.
        8. Romans 3:4 Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
        9. Romans 8:28-34 for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
        10. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
          1. Note the aorist tense, denoting a punctiliar, instantaneous act, and the passive voice, denoting an action received, not done, by the subjects: you were washed, were sanctified, were justified—all having to denote not an ongoing process but instantaneous events that are past for these people.
        11. Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
          1. Paul contrasts God as “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” with God as the One who “in his divine forbearance … had passed over former sins,” i.e., not condemned those who committed them. So justifying is the opposite of condemning.
  2.  How did the Roman Catholic Church define justification? We’ll consider separately their definition and the process by which they reached it.

    1. Note: Remember that Roman Catholicism didn’t officially define justification or how it is received until the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, January, 1547, after the Lutherans and Reformed had defined it.
    2. Their definition
      1. Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter 7: “…Justification … is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”
    3. Their process
      1. Jerome (347–420) used the Latin verb iustificare to translate Hebrew words meaning “to be righteous” or “to declare or be declared righteous.” E.g.:
        1. Psalm 51:4, David confesses his sin to God, saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified [Hebrew tsadaq] in your words and blameless in your judgment.” Of course David’s sin against God didn’t make God righteous; God already was righteous.
        2. Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies [Hebrew tsadaq] the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Of course, someone who literally made the wicked righteous—transformed them from wicked to righteous—would not be an abomination to the Lord at all.
        3. Jerome chose iustificare to translate these and similar instances from Hebrew.
          1. He seems not to have thought of iustificare as “to make righteous.”
          2. But later Roman Catholic thinkers did, assuming that the word was constructed from two Latin roots, ius, just, and facere, to make.
          3. So the Roman Catholic definitions of justify and justification are rooted in Jerome’s mistranslation of the Hebrew and Greek terms.
  3.  How did the Reformers define justification? We’ll consider separately their definition and the process by which they reached it.

    1. Their definition
      1. Augsburg Confession (1530), by Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg, Article IV: “1] … men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”
      2. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), by Heinrich Bullinger and colleagues in Basel, Article XV: “According to the apostle in his treatment of justification, to justify means to remit sins, to absolve from guilt and punishment, to receive into favor, and to pronounce a man just.”
      3. John Calvin, Institutes, 1543 edition, 3.11.2: “… we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”
      4. Formula of Concord (1577)
        1. 9: “poor sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation”
        2. 17: “the word justify … means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness”
        3. 22: “when we teach that through the operation of the Holy Ghost we are born anew and justified, the sense is not that after regeneration no unrighteousness clings any more to the …, but that Christ covers all their sins … with His complete obedience. But irrespective of this they are declared and regarded godly and righteous by faith and for the sake of Christ’s obedience …, although, on account of their corrupt nature, they still are and remain sinners”
        4. 23: “the righteousness of faith before God consists in the gracious imputation of the righteousness of Christ, without the addition of our works, so that our sins are forgiven us and covered, and are not imputed, Rom. 4:6ff”
      5. Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), Q. 70: “What is justification?” A: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners,[286] in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight ….”
    2. Their process
      1. Some Roman Catholics think that the Reformers defined justification “by fiat,” that is, without any good reason, as declaring someone righteous, acquitting him. The Reformers’ own writings show clearly that that wasn’t the case. Here are a few examples.
      2. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), XV: “For in his epistle to the Romans the apostle says: “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33). To justify and to condemn are opposed. And in The Acts of the Apostles the apostle states: “Through Christ forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38 f.). For in the Law and also in the Prophets we read: “If there is a dispute between men, and they come into court…the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut. 25:1). And in Isa., ch. 5: “Woe to those…who aqcuit the guilty for a bribe.”
      3. Formula of Concord (1577), III.17: “the word justify here means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed by God to faith, Phil. 3:9. For this use and understanding of this word is common in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament. Prov. 17:15: He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord. Is. 5:23: Woe unto them which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! Rom. 8:33: Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, that is, absolves from sins and acquits.”
      4. John Calvin, Institutes, 1559 edition, 3.11.3: “First, when Luke relates that the people, having heard Christ, justified God [Luke 7:29], and when Christ declares that ‘wisdom is justified by … her children’ [Luke 7:35], Luke in the former passage (v. 29) does not mean that they confer righteousness. For righteousness always remains undivided with God, although the whole world tries to snatch it away from him. Nor does he, in v. 35, intend to justify the doctrine of salvation, which is righteous in itself. Rather, both expressions have the same force—to render to God and his teaching the praise they deserve. On the other hand, when Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves [Luke 16:15], he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well-doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid. Those skilled in the Hebrew language better understand this sense: where not only those who are conscious of their crime but those who undergo the judgment of damnation are called ‘wicked.’ For when Bathsheba says that she and Solomon will be wicked [I Kings 1:21], she does not acknowledge any offense. But she complains that she and her son are going to be put to shame, to be counted among the wicked and condemned.”
      5. Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586), known as “the Second Martin,” lecturer in theology at Wittenberg and then at Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, spent many pages in his Examination of the Council of Trent (1565–1573) demonstrating the forensic sense of justification in Scripture.
      6. Francis Turretin (1623–1687), professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva beginning in 1653, Institutes of Elenctic Theology:
        1. 1.4: “The word htsdyq, to which the Greek dikaioun answers and the Latin justificare, is used in two ways in the Scriptures—properly and improperly. Properly the verb is forensic [relating to a pronunciation of judgment], put for ‘to absolve’ anyone in a trial or ‘to hold’ and to declare ‘just’; as opposed to the verb ‘to condemn’ and ‘to accuse’ (Ex. 23:7; Dt. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Lk. 18:14; Rom. 3–5).”
        2. 1.5–8: “… we maintain that it is never taken for an infusion of righteousness, but as often as the Scriptures speak professedly about our justification, it always must be explained as a forensic term. [6] The reason are: (1) the passages which treat of justification admit no other than a forensic sense (cf. Job 9:3; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:28; 4:1–3; Acts 13:39 and elsewhere). A judicial process is set forth and mention is made of an accusing ‘law,’ of ‘accused persons’ who are guilty (hypodikoi, Rom. 3:19), of a ‘hand-writing’ contrary to us (Col. 2:14), of divine ‘justice’ demanding punishment (Rom. 3:24, 26), of an ‘advocate’ pleading the cause (1 Jn. 2:1), of ‘satisfaction’ and imputed righteousness (Rom. 4 and 5), of a ‘throne of grace’ before which we are absolved (Heb. 4:16), of a ‘judge’ pronouncing sentence (Rom. 3:20) and absolving sinners (Rom. 4:5). [7] Justification is opposed to condemnation … [Romans 8:33–34]. [8] The equivalent phrases by which our justification is described are judicial: such as ‘not to come into judgment’ (Jn. 5:24), ‘not to be condemned” (Jn. 3:18), ‘to remit sins’, ‘to impute righteousness’ (Rom. 4), ‘to be reconciled’ (Rom. 5:10;2 Cor. 5:19) and the like.”

Conclusion

In his Commentary on Galatians, 1:3, Luther wrote: “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” And on 4:8–9, he wrote: “Whoever gives up the article of justification does not know the true God. It is one and the same thing whether a person reverts to the Law or to the worship of idols. When the article of justification is lost, nothing remains except error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry. God will and can be known in no other way than in and through Christ according to the statement of John 1:18, ‘The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.; Christ is the only means whereby we can know God and His will. In Christ we perceive that God is not a cruel judge, but a most loving and merciful Father who to bless and to save us ‘spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ This is truly to know God.”

 

Featured image “Reformation Wall in Geneva,” by Mark Gstohl, via Flickr Creative Commons