This morning at St. Andrew’s Chapel Dr. R.C. Sproul delivered an excellent summary of the Reformed position on Justification by Faith Alone. In his series on the book of Acts, he has reached the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) where James presides as head presbyter. The discussion centers around the issue the Judaizers have brought forth. The Judaizers were highly concerned that allowing Gentiles into the community of saints would infringe upon their perspective on salvation. Of course, to them grace and circumcision composed the proper ingredients to salvation. Dr. Sproul was conspicuously concerned in alerting the church of the dangers the gospel has faced in the last centuries and continues to face even in our day. Quoting Luther he said that “justification by faith is the article of the standing or falling church.”
RC made a brief reference to the New Perspective on Paul controversy. It appears that in last week’s Pastor’s Conference, a majority of the pastors were utterly in awe of the devastation the NPP has caused in some of the Reformed Churches in the US. The New Perspective on Paul does not see justification as a necessary declaration to enter the Christian community, rather it is the means by which they are maintained. In simple terms, it sees justification as ecclesiastical rather than soteriological.
My brief thoughts on this issue has yet to be confirmed by my studies. I have done some work but not extensive work on NPP. However, I concur with Doug Wilson who stated in the end of his book, “Reformed is Not Enough”, that the Christian Church needs to give N.T. Wright and others a fair hearing.
One of my primary concerns with this issue is that the church despise this perspective as another attack on the gospel and not seek to understand it. If this occurs, she will become ignorant of the facts and not be able to engage major theological issues of the day, thereby losing even more credibility. If the Reformation urged us to “always reform” (Semper Reformanda), it would be foolish to not examine this perspective. I am quite aware that the term “new” causes immediate fear in some, but we are well reminded that the Reformation itself was a new work of God in the church. Another fear commonly expressed is that NPP has its origins in the work of E.P. Sanders, a liberal scholar, to say the least. However, once again another reminder of the history of the church is necessary. It was through the efforts of heretics and excommunicated fathers that the church refined its ideas and came to supreme conclusions on doctrinal matters.
I am not quite sure we can say with certainty that “justification” has a narrow meaning or rather, if it can be defined more broadly as some suggest. It is my contention that there still is much work to be done not only on the usage of the term “justification” but also on its broader application to the community.
Overall, this seems to be a healthy debate and not worthy of separation. Whether NPP is a correct method of interpreting Paul or if Luther had it right to begin with, or even if both of these positions are not mutually exclusive, as I tend to believe, the church is still bound and held by the great creeds, not solely on Lutheran or Calvinistic doctrines, but one that encompasses all Orthodox denominations. One final observation deserves our attention, and that is, that the Creeds of the church for the first 1600 years do not include “justification by faith alone.” Now, what does this mean? I am still not sure. For your convenience here is the greatest of all Creeds in my opinion. Read it and meditate on that which is really essential.
THE APOSTLE’S CREED
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell. [see Calvin]
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy *catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
*The word “catholic” refers not to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the universal church of the Lord Jesus Christ.