Does Justification Sola Fide Need an Upgrade? (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. III)

In this third installment of my review, I want to turn to consider what is, perhaps more than anything else, at the heart of Leithart’s argument in this remarkable book: his notion of the “deliverdict.” In the last installment of this review (and see here for the opening summary), I argued that in places, Leithart’s commitment to offering an essentially new (or at least long-forgotten) way of talking about Christ’s saving work led him at times to claim to be saying something new when he wasn’t really, lapsing into imprecision at key points where the traditional formulations are really quite clear and perhaps not in great need of being improved upon. So it is also here in his discussion of the meaning of justification.

Now many Protestants, rightly or wrongly (and I am inclined to think rightly), can get awfully nervous when it comes to tinkering with the material principle of the Reformation, justification sola fide. Thus you would think that if what you had to say on the topic was in fact substantially in continuity with Reformational doctrine, that you would be at pains to emphasize that fact, and to present your position where possible in traditional terms. This is particularly the case in a day and age when many Protestants, unschooled in and insecure about the basic principles of their Protestant heritage, are tempted to jump ship to unreformed traditions in response to polemics which caricature key Protestant teachings (particularly justification by faith). So I find it surprising and concerning that Leithart at many points seems to do the opposite, seeking to unnecessarily accentuate differences between his own views and those of the Reformers, and to blur rather than clarify traditional Protestant doctrine.

Indeed, for those who want to cut to the chase (for this will, I am afraid, be a very long post, given the need for some quite long quotations to accurately state Leithart’s argument and illustrate its discontinuities with the tradition), I will state up front what I will argue in this post.

First, Leithart offers what is to my mind in all its essentials a pretty impeccably Protestant account of the meaning and implications of the sinner’s justification by faith. Justification is not a mere pardon, not a mere verdict, but a transformative, liberating declaration that frees the sinner from condemnation and gives him new life from the dead, that makes him no longer a slave in bondage to the law but a son of God; indeed, united to the Son of God, all that is Christ’s is his. I was reminded of nothing so much as Luther’s Freedom of a Christian when reading Leithart’s account of the “deliverdict.”

Second, however, rather than claiming the glorious heritage of Protestant teaching on justification as his own, Leithart repeatedly insinuates that there are profound tensions and ambiguities in it that have prevented it from often saying what it should say—what would be the full expression of its essential insight that our status comes from outside of us—and led it often to reduce justification to a thin and ineffective declaration that is of no existential import for the sinner. Sometimes, to be sure, Leithart uses language like “some Protestants have said” implying that there is on this point good Protestant theology, to which we should return, and bad forms of Protestant theology, that should be rejected. At other points, however, it seems clear that he views the bad forms as springing from a fundamental tension that goes right back to the beginning, such that there have not been until now, perhaps, any unequivocal statements of Protestant theology on this point.

Third, although for the most part, the accusations and insinuations are pretty vague and uncited, leaving us to wonder who exactly is denying the things that he keeps saying Protestant theology has tended to deny, there are a handful of quotations and footnotes that specify the target more clearly. On closer examination, however, these all appear to trade on some very basic equivocations that betray remarkable carelessness or confusion about what the doctrine of justification meant for the Reformers and their heirs. In particular, in its simplest form, Leithart’s error seems to be that he chops the doctrine of adoption (which Turretin calls “an inseparable part” of justification) out of the historic doctrine of forensic justification, and then complains that the resulting doctrine of justification lacks all the features of a doctrine of adoption. Then, with his deliverdict notion, he seeks to add back in all the key features of a doctrine of adoption (though curiously without using the term, surprising given his dependence on Galatians, where it is so central). It is as if Leithart were to buy a beautiful old Mustang, in perfect working order, at a car show, bring it home, remove all the wheels, hop in the driver’s seat, complain loudly that the car was useless because it couldn’t drive, and then re-attach all the wheels and start enthusiastically displaying this awesome new car he had put together. Harsh as it may sound, the more I look at the passages in question, the more apt this analogy seems.

Fourth, all this would be bad enough, but a more serious problem results from this curious confusion. If I may continue with the analogy, since Leithart feels the need to find an explanation of why the car won’t drive, he assumes it must have a bad transmission and engine, which he needs to totally replace with a new model from his own workshop. So it is that Leithart argues that these pervasive “tensions” in the Protestant doctrine of justification (which are created chiefly by excising the doctrine of adoption) must result from bad metaphysical and anthropological commitments, and so require a new understanding of nature and grace. This metaphysical revisionism will require a separate post to investigate, so I will no more than flag it here.

Readers who are already convinced (who I suppose would only be readers who already have some chip on their shoulder against Leithart and so are eager to prejudge him) can stop here, if they wish. In what follows, I will seek to illustrate the first three points above through some voluminous quotation.


The Concept of the “Deliverdict”

First, then, let’s make sure to get Leithart’s constructive proposal on the table and examine it to make sure we understand what he’s trying to offer with his notion of the “deliverdict”:

“To justify is to declare a verdict, but it is not merely a verbal act. In justifying, God enacts a judgment against evil and in favor of justice. God the Judge condemns by destroying the guilty and justifies by delivering the righteous. Justification takes the form of death and resurrection. Specifically, justification describes the judgment passed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” (179)

Ok, the basic idea is that the verdict must be effectual. It must actually “liberate from punishment,” and “deliver from death”; not only that, but it must have the positive character of resurrection, involving the “bestowal of a right to life.” Wait, hang on, why are all those phrases in quotation marks? Because they are quotations from Francis Turretin (IET 2:658), you know that supposedly dusty old Reformed scholastic who sucked all the life out of Protestant theology. I would submit that if the basic outlines of your definition of justification could have just as easily been a quote from Turretin, then it’s probably not very new and revolutionary.

Now, what is somewhat new here is the stress on “justification” as having first and foremost occurred “in the death and resurrection of Jesus.” This is something that Leithart emphasizes repeatedly in this chapter: he believes that in Pauline language, first of all refers to what has happened to Christ, and only second to the effectual application of this in the life of the believer. Of course, no good Protestant theologian would really disagree with the sentiment even if they might use the terminology differently, applying the word justification almost entirely in the realm of “redemption applied” rather than “redemption accomplished.” As a proposal for getting us back closer to biblical usage, Leithart’s language here has merit, but I don’t think it poses any fundamental dogmatic challenges. Nor does Leithart really claim that this part of his proposal does; in what follows, his emphasis on what is new about his proposal focuses chiefly on questions of applied redemption, justification in the life of the sinner:

“The account of justification that follows makes two notable adjustments to the standard view of justification, the first having to do with the meaning of the term and the second having to do with the referent, the real-life event that Paul describes as justification. I argue below that justify is, as Protestant theology has insisted, a juridical/legal term referring to the judgment of God in favor of a sinner. In contrast to some standard Protestant soteriologies, though, Paul treats this judgment not as a mere verdict of ‘righteous’ that is the basis for liberation, but as itself an act of deliverance. The verdict of justification does change a person’s status. A person is righteous refore God because Christ shares his righteous standing with those who are united to him. Sinners have the righteous status of Jesus himself by faith, by trusting in Christ and entrusting themselves to the Father, by self-abandonment and loyalty to their Savior. Yet as a judicial act justification transforms a person’s life-situation as well as their status. A justified person dies and rises in Christ, and so is delivered from sin, death, and the domination of flesh. Justification is, to introduce my neologism, a ‘deliverdict,’ a forensic act, a judicial verdict that in its very forensic character is an act of deliverance. It is a favorable judgment in the form of resurrection.” (180-81)

This is really just a fuller statement of the preceding definition, but Leithart claims that it makes “notable adjustments to the standard view,” even if it sounds like a pretty standard view to me (the language of “life-situation” is a rather modern expression, and is pretty central to what Leithart thinks is new in his proposal, but the basic idea I think is quite old; we will return to this further on). It is certainly true that standard Protestant theologies draw a distinction between the verdict of righteousness in justification, which liberates from the condemnation of sin and death, and the actual progressive liberation from the indwelling power of sin which happens in justification (a distinction which Leithart himself firmly maintains; he is not remotely Catholic on this point), but both are spoken of as forms of liberation. In fact, if anything, the former is the primary referent of “liberation” language in the Protestant tradition. Consider Luther’s great work The Freedom of a Christian, in which the Christian is the “free lord of all” (through justification) and the dutiful servant of all (in his life of sanctification). The deliverance from the condemnation of the law, and from the futile struggle to be reconciled to God and other human beings by its outward works (in other words, Leithart’s stoicheia—yes, I know there are different shades of emphasis, but the core meaning seems very similar), is the greatest liberation one could ask for or imagine, in Luther’s account:

“when the Christian liberty which we have from Christ Himself is rightly taught . . . we are shown in what manner all we Christians are kings and priests, and how we are lords of all things, and may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to Him. Whose heart would not rejoice in its inmost core at hearing these things? Whose heart, on receiving so great a consolation, would not become sweet with the love of Christ, a love to which it can never attain by any laws or works? Who can injure such a heart, or make it afraid? If the consciousness of sin, or the horror of death, rush in upon it, it is prepared to hope in the Lord, and is fearless of such evils, and undisturbed, until it shall look down upon its enemies. For it believes that the righteousness of Christ is its own, and that its sin is no longer its own, but that of Christ, for, on account of its faith in Christ, all its sin must needs be swallowed up from before the face of the righteousness of Christ, as I have said above. It learns too, with the Apostle, to scoff at death and sin, and to say: ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor. xv. 55-57.) For death is swallowed up in victory; not only the victory of Christ, but ours also; since by faith it becomes ours, and in it we too conquer.”[1]


In his Appendix Two, where Leithart expands on his critique of traditional Protestant doctrines of justification, we get some more explanations of what he takes to be essential to a properly Protestant doctrine of justification:

“If (as Cornelus van Til everwhere says) facts and interpretations are inseparable, and if facts are what they are because of God’s interpretation of them, then God’s interpretation should trump everything else. A sinner who is reputed and named by God as righteous is in fact righteous, just as a child whose parents name him ‘Jacob’ is in fact Jacob. A doctrine of justification that rests on imputation is as much a factitive doctrine as the Catholic view. Protestants should claim to present a different—what may turn out to be a more biblical—notion of fact than the Tridentine view.” (324-25)

Now let’s leave aside the fact that he just appealed to Van Til and the implicit radical nominalism in that first sentence (more on this in the following post); as a statement of how Protestantism has traditionally understood justification (and the union with Christ that it is a part of), this seems pretty sound. Leithart goes on:

“If this is the case, then justification—which by strict Protestant definition is a change in my status before God—changes me in the profoundest way possible. If I am what God judges me to be, then justification marks a transition and change in my identity, a change in my being and person, not in addition to a change of status but precisely because it is a change of status. . . . “When God says ‘this sinner is just,’ I am no longer the same man I was before that declaration. I continue to sin, but I now sin as one who has been redefined as a righteous man, and so remade. Once God declares me righteous, I simply am righteous. This is not because of any ‘infusion’ of grace, and the declaration is not based on anything I have done by my ‘natural’ powers. The declaration is pure declaration, but because it is the declaration of the God who determined all things before the foundation of the world, the God whose names for things determine their reality, it cannot but be a declaration that changes me.” (326)

Again, compare to Luther:

“The third incomparable grace of faith is this, that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband; by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage—nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages—is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as his.

If we compare these possessions, we shall see how inestimable is the gain. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if he is a husband, he must needs take to himself that which is his wife’s, and, at the same time, impart to his wife that which is his. For, in giving her his own body and himself, how can he but give her all that is his? And, in taking to himself the body of his wife, how can he but take to himself all that is hers?

. . . . Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of its husband Christ. Thus he presents to himself a glorious bride, without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word; that is, by faith in the word of life, righteousness, and salvation.”

Or Calvin:

“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..” (IV.17.2)

Ok, sure, but these expressions come from the first glorious proclamation of the Protestant message, when the movement was young and youthful and vital and really did grasp the full dimensions of justification. Surely later on, it tended to become feeble and desiccated by comparison, as I’m sure you’d find in, oh, I don’t know, someone like Charles Hodge:

“The theory which reduces justification to pardon and its consequences, is inconsistent with what is revealed concerning our union with Christ. That union is mystical, supernatural, representative, and vital. We were in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. i. 4); we are in Him as we were in Adam (Rom. v. 12, 21; 1 Cor. xv. 22); we are in Him as the members of the body are in the head (Eph. i. 23, iv. 16; 1 Cor. xii. 12, 27, and often); we are in Him as the branches are in the vine (John xv. 1-12). We are in Him in such a sense that his death is our death, we were crucified with Him (Gal. ii. 20; Rom. vi. 1-8) ; we are so united with Him that we rose with Him, and sit with Him in heavenly places. (Eph. ii. 1-6.) In virtue of this union we are (in our measure) what He is. We are the sons of God in Him. And what He did, we did. His righteousness is our righteousness. His life is our life. His exaltation is our exaltation. Such is the pervading representation of the Scriptures. All this is overlooked by the advocates of the opposite theory. According to that view, Christ is no more united to his people, except in sentiment, than to other men. He has simply done what renders it consistent with the character of God and the interests of his kingdom, to pardon any and every man who repents and believes. His relation is purely external. He is not so united to his people that his merit becomes their merit and his life their life. Christ is not in them the hope of glory. (Col. i. 27.) He is not of God made unto them wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. (1 Cor. i. 30.) They are not so in Him that, in virtue of that union, they are filled with all the fulness of God. (Col. ii. 10; and Eph. iii. 19.) On the other hand, the Protestant doctrine of justification harmonizes with all these representations. If we are so united to Christ as to be made partakers of his life, we are also partakers of his righteousness. What He did in obeying and suffering He did for his people. One essential element of his redeeming work was to satisfy the demands of justice in their behalf, so that in Him and for his sake they are entitled to pardon and eternal life.”[2]

But it is precisely such a reduction of justification to “pardon” (indeed, never even mind “its consequences”) that Leithart seems to charge on traditional Protestantism.


Charges of Tension in the Protestant Tradition

Leithart states his quarrel with what he calls “classic Protestantism” and “traditional Protestant theology” a few times in his main exposition of the deliverdict in Chapter Eight:

“This account of justification (1) is faithful to the Protestant insight that justification is a forensic act yet (2) makes good on Protestant claims to be consistent with the catholic tradition by emphasizing the life-transforming, ontological effect of that forensic act (see appendix 2 for more detail). Yet this proposal (3) helps resolve the tensions of Protestant soteriology and piety by making justification and sanctification truly inseparable, by consistently working out the decentered anthropology implicit in Protestant soteriology, and by stressing the corporate dimensions of justification and the Christian life.” (180-81, footnote 3)

“…the dualisms of classic Protestantism: if justification is going to affect one’s life and person, it must be more than a judicial act.” (182 footnote 5)

“Sometimes the deliverative element of justification comes out explicitly in traditional Protestant theology. When this point remains implicit and more or less ignored, Pauline theology is distorted.” (186 footnote 14)

Note the yets in that first paragraph. He clearly feels that the core “Protestant insight” on forensic justification has somehow not been followed up on properly, that we have are left with a mere legal fiction in which the believing is called righteous, but everyone knows God is kinda crossing his fingers and winking when he says it—properly speaking, we all know the sinner isn’t really righteous. The quotations already provided, I think, challenge this claim, as well as casting into doubt the notions that in traditional Protestant theology, justification somehow does not “affect one’s life and person” or foreground a “deliverative element.” Again, I challenge anyone making such charges to just curl up with Luther’s Freedom of a Christian for an hour or two of spiritual fireworks. So it is not at all clear to me from these passages in Chapter Eight where Leithart really thinks he has a quarrel with classic Protestantism.


The charges are developed at considerably more length in Appendix Two, however. After the passage about Van Til and “factitive” justification which we quoted above, Leithart says,

“All this should be easy for Protestant theology to say. . . . But at a certain point, Protestantism often backs off from its own premises. Protestants have not always recognized that their doctrine of justification is ‘factitive.” Instead, we have often accepted the Tridentine claims and conceded that our doctrine is not ‘factitive’ but merely ‘legal.’” (327)

It is certainly true that in polemics against Catholic theology, Protestants did firmly reject that justification was “factitive” in the sense that Tridentine theology insisted—namely, that it involved infused righteousness. But this was not because they thought justification did less than Trent thought, but rather because they thought it did more: that is, they argued that a declaration of liberation on the basis of pure grace, having nothing to do with merits, was more transformative and revolutionary in the life of a sinner than the Catholic view could ever be. However, Leithart offers no citations at this point, so we cannot follow up exactly who or what he has in mind with this charge. He goes on, however:

“The anthropological assumptions in some Protestant soteriology are incoherent: Protestantism often proposes a forensic person, but then allows a ‘natural’ self to sneak back in by an unlocked back door, a natural self who presents himself as the factual self, albeit clothed in the garments of Christ, a natural self who wears the status of righteousness like a hobbit in a giant’s robe. Practically, the anthropological inconsistency of Protestant soteriology is behind Protestant oscillation between antinomianism and legalism.” (327)

This is one place where he uses the qualifiers “some” and “often,” which could suggest that we are dealing here with aberrant and corrupt forms of Protestant theology, which are certainly legion. But then by suggesting that this problem is at the root of perennial Protestant “oscillation between antinomianism and legalism,” he seems to suggest that the problem is rather more fundamental. In any case, I simply do not see it in the classic expressions of Protestant theology. Although the sinner is indeed simul justus et peccator (as Leithart himself happily concedes at other points), nowhere do the fathers of Protestantism claim that the peccator is somehow the more true, real, determinative reality than the justus; quite the contrary!

There is, however, a footnote here, so perhaps we can get some clarification about the charge. The footnote reads:

“The difficulties are evident, for example, in confusions about the relation between regeneration, which results in repentance and faith, and justification. Justification is supposed to be ‘justification of the ungodly,’ yet in some treatments faith and repentance (understood, of course, as a gift from god) are said to be the presuppositions of justification (John Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700), 90, quoting Edward Leigh). If that is the case, then justification is not a declaration concerning the ungodly, but a declaration concerning those-who-are-beginning-to-be-godly, the justification of the nascently penitent. Apart from some distracting shuffling around of terms, it is not clear how this differs from medieval soteriology.”

Dem’s fightin’ words indeed! But when we turn from this footnote to Fesko and Leigh to look for the damning passage, we find only this:

“However, this prioritization [of adoption] does not mean that Leigh fails to recognize that other aspects of the believer’s union with Christ must be logically considered first. Leigh explains: “ There is a great difference between vocation and justication, vocation precedes, justification follows. Justification praesupponit aliquid, viz. faith and repentance.”

If there is indeed a problem here, it is a serious one indeed, since Leigh is no loose cannon in placing effectual calling before justification, but simply echoes the consensus statement of the Reformed tradition (and indeed, Fesko passes on without comment, not considering the remark worthy of remark). So if this is indeed a “confusion about the relation between regeneration and justification,” then it goes all the way down. It turns out that there is a confusion here, but it seems to be Leithart’s! Leithart seems to think that if we place faith before justification in any sense, then faith is thereby made the effectual cause or ground of justification, such that God only justifies people who have already done something to deserve it—in which case, it does sounds a lot like medieval soteriology. But the Reformed everywhere reject such a construal of justification by faith—in fact, they treat such a construal as the common trademark of un-reformed views!

Here Turretin can speak for all:

“All our opponents agree in this—that faith justifies properly and by itself and so is our very righteousness—but with some differences. For the Socinians maintain that faith or the act of beliving is the cause of our justification so that there is no other immediate and formal righteousness by which we are just before God than our faith. . . . . The Remonstrants agree with them on this point. . . . The Romanists hold that faith is the disposing and cause sine qua non, which not only disposes to righteousness, but also begins and merits righteousness itself.

“However, the orthodox differ wholly from them. They teach that faith is the organic and instrumental cause of our justification and that justification is ascribed to it, not properly and by itself (inasmuch as it is a work or as if it was the righteousness itself by which we are justified before God; or as if by its own worth or by the indulgence of God it deserves justification in whole or in part) but improperly and metonymically (inasmuch as Christ’s righteousness, which faith apprehends, is the foundation and meritorious cause on account of which we are justified). So that it is said to justify relatively and organically, relatively because the object of faith is our true righteousness before God; organically because faith is the instrument for receiving on our part and for applying to ourselves, that righteousness” (2:669-70).

Turretin goes on, as anyone who knows him can imagine, at considerably more length to drill this point home, but this peremptory statement is probably sufficient for our purposes.


Let us then return to Leithart, and I will go ahead and throw one more big quotation at you which will give us most of what we need to finish sorting through Leithart’s charges against classical Protestant soteriology:

“Similar problems arise in connection with one of the distinctive claims of Protestantism: its distinction between justification as a strictly forensic act, and the morally and spiritually transforming event of regeneration and sanctification. . . . Protestant theologians insist that the declaration of justification does not change the sinner’s character, but only their status before God. This can lead to incoherence. . . . In justification we are transferred from a place of wrath to a place of grace. But if this is the case, can it still be denied that justification is ‘life-changing’? To deny that a change of ‘realm’ is a change of ‘inner character’ assumes that human beings are what they are regardless of the ‘realm’ in which they are found. . . . On the one hand human salvation is defined exoterically, as union with Christ; but on the other hand this union with Christ is not determinative after all, at least for the ‘inner’ human being. If forensic justification is not a change in identity, then my outward ‘status’ is independent of my inward ‘character.’ Rather than considering justification ‘exterior,’ it should be seen as a status-change and a change of situation that affects the whole person. Justification even changes the character of my actions. This is the case even if there is no apparent change in my actions themselves. A man who sleeps with a hooker the night before his wedding has committed fornication; the night after his wedding he commits adultery. . . . Actions are not separable from the status or life situation of the person performing the action.” (330)

There are three main points to make about all this.

First, it should be clear that even though he seems to be picking on the justification/sanctification distinction, Leithart is not making anything like the Catholic complaint. He is not arguing that justification as such needs to involve holy behavior. His last example makes clear: the justified sinner might continue (for a time at least) doing the same wicked behaviors that the unjustified sinner did, but the behaviors now mean something very different—as he goes on to explain, on the one hand, the sin is more serious since it is a sin against greater grace, but it is also forgiven in Christ.

Second, it is once again hard to see how there is anything about the these last sentences (beginning with “Rather than considering”) that classical Protestantism would disagree with. Indeed, in a footnote to this section, Leithart notes that “part of the genius of the Protestant doctrine of justification is that it sees justification as a purely relational reality,” and then gives an extended quotation from Berndt Hamm which summarizes the traditional Reformation doctrine in terms very similar to Leithart’s own. Why the constant insistence on a tension?

Well, third, this time we can get a little more clarity on where Leithart thinks he sees a tension because he gives a few quotations in a footnote to support the claim that “Protestant theologians insist that the declaration of justification does not change the sinner’s character, but only their status before God.” Nearly all seems to turn, however, on a fundamental equivocation about the terms “subjective” and “character.” Consider the quotation from Charles Hodge: “Justification changes, or declares to be changed, the relation of the sinner to the justice of God; sanctification involves a change of character. . . . The former, therefore, is objective, the latter subjective.” (Systematic Theology 3:213) Rather than asking what Hodge might mean by these terms, Leithart seems to give his own gloss—“subjective” means “experiential” and “character” means something like “meaning” as in Leithart’s sentence “changes the character of my actions.” But this is clearly not what Hodge means by either term, as we can see from his own explanation:

“By this the Reformers intended, in the first place, to deny the Romish doctrine of subjective justification. That is, that justification consists in an act or agency of God making the sinner subjectively holy. Romanists confound or unite justification and sanctification. They define justification as ‘the remission of sin and infusion of new habits of grace.’ By remission of sin they mean not simply pardon, but the removal of everything of the nature of sin from the soul. Justification, therefore, with them, is purely subjective, consisting in the destruction of sin and the infusion of holiness. In opposition to this doctrine, the Reformers maintained that by justification the Scriptures mean something different from sanctification. That the two gifts, although inseparable, are distinct, and that justification, instead of being an efficient act changing the inward character of the sinner, is a declarative act, announcing and determining his relation to the law and justice of God.”[3]

Subjective justification, in other words, had specific reference to the Tridentine doctrine of infused holiness; while character carries its usual English sense of “habitual moral behavior.” We have already seen that Charles Hodge has no hesitation at all in describing justification as involving a comprehensive change in the believer’s identity and the meaning of all that he is and does.

Leithart does manage to find some ill-chosen phrases from Robert Reymond (1998) denying that justification is “experiential” or “psychological” and William Edgar (2004) suggesting that regeneration, not justification, is “life-changing.” However, he grudgingly admits that Berkhof’s systematic theology “acknowledg[es] a place for ‘subjective justification,’ which is the sinner’s sense of release and peace of conscience that follows from trust in God’s declaration of acceptance.” So the most this lengthy footnote manages is to show that a few second-rate modern treatments are so zealous in narrowing down the forensic dimension of justification that they all but deny its existential import. But this is hardly sufficient basis for the claim that there is a fundamental unresolved tension at the heart of the Reformation.


Adoption: The Missing Key

We may now hasten on toward a conclusion. Let me throw two more quotes at you.

First, here is one where, at the end of his critique of classical Protestantism, Leithart expresses how he would like to see justification talked about:

“When asked, ‘Does the inner person change when they’re justified?’ we should simply reply, ‘I know no inner person who exists in a zone that is not governed by the Word and judgment of God. The person—the whole person—is changed because of their change of status in the court of God. As soon as God declares them just in Christ, they are a new person. For there is nothing more fundamental about human beings than how God regards them.” (331 fn31)

Once again, it is hard to think of a statement that is more straight Luther than that. Luther’s entire focus, in fact, is on how justification changes the inner man, a point from which Leithart seems to have been distracted by the Reformers’ emphasis on the extra nos of justifying righteousness, which he claims leaves the inner man untouched. Of course nothing could be further from the case: rather, for Luther and Calvin and the rest, through the “wonderful exchange” our own inmost being is as it were replaced with, or found only in union with, the Christ outside us.

Second is one of the few places where Leithart quotes with full approval a classical Protestant source, Chemnitz’s Examination of the Council of Trent:

“in this dispute about justification the question is how a man is transferred from that state in which he is a child of wrath into the state of grace and adoption as children.”

This, he says, is exactly right, so why don’t Protestants follow through on this? But they do—whenever they talk about adoption! Somehow Leithart misses the mention of adoption altogether; indeed, the term never appears in the index of his book and I don’t recall him discussing it anywhere. This despite the fact that it is one of the central Reformed doctrines, is considered part and parcel of justification, and is a dominant theme of Galatians, a text that Leithart adopts as his lodestar in Delivered from the Elements. It is precisely through this doctrine that Protestants traditionally talked about all the things that Leithart wants to talk about in this book: deliverance from bondage to the law, the elements of this world, and the fear of death, becoming the new Israel as co-heirs with Christ of all that is means to be a son of God, a new status and identity before God, a new social reality as part of the family of God, and indeed new life from the dead.[4] Reformed theologians also made clear that adoption was the element of justification which believers in the Old Covenant did not yet share in, corresponding to an important part of Leithart’s argument in this book.

For the sake of time, we will consult only Turretin on this point. He opens his exposition by rejecting the idea that “the whole of justification is comprehended in the remission of sin alone, so that God is to be considered as justifying us when he pardons our sins and absolves us from punishment” (IET 2:656); Turretin seems just as opposed to the “naked forensic verdict” doctrine of justification as is Leithart. On the contrary, he says, “absolution from punishment is not sufficient for a full justification, but the communication of a right to life is also required” (657). This “right to life” is the conception of adoption, “or the bestowal of a right to life, flowing from Christ’s righteousness, which acquired for us not only deliverance from death, but also a right to life by the adoption by which he endows us” (666). In adoption God “not only bestows upon us the glorious name of dearly beloved sons with the distinctions and honors pertaining to them, but also gives us a right to all his goods of grace as well as of glory.” Here Turretin is even willing to use that language of character that Leithart wants to insist on: “God by adopting changes the heart, and to whom he gratuitously gives the right of sons, he also impresses upon them the mind and character of sons by the Spirit of adoption.”(667) Adoption also includes the notion of Christian liberty (669), which is the main way that the Reformers talked about what Leithart describes as being “delivered from the stoicheia, or elements of the world”—see for instance the seminal discussion in Calvin’s Institutes III.19, not to mention of course, once again, Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.

Nor is adoption some kind of afterthought to justification:

“From these positions, it is gathered that to no purpose do some anxiously here ask how justification and adoption differ from each other, and whether adoption is by nature prior to justification (as some hold, who think it is the first and immediate fruit of faith by which we are united and joined to Christ; or whether posterior to and consequent upon it, as others). For since it is evident from what has been said that justification is a benefit which God (being reconciled to us in Christ) absolves us from the guilt of sins and gives us a right to life, it follows that adoption is included in justification itself as a part which, with the remission of sins, constitutes the whole of this benefit. Nor can it be distinguished from adoption except as inasmuch as it is taken strictly for remission of sins, since in its formal conception it includes also acceptation to life, which flows from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” (IET 2:668).



So why does all this matter? Certainly I am not about to deny that many Protestants today (and no doubt many Protestants in every age) have operated with, and articulated, a very impoverished doctrine of justification, one that is vulnerable to many of Leithart’s criticisms, and that stands to be enriched deeply by his holistic and biblically-steeped exposition here. Indeed, the very fact that we have seen both Turretin and Hodge refuting deficient Protestant views of justification shows that Leithart’s concerns are nothing new; so great is the glory of the Gospel that fallen man, overwhelmed at the wonder of it, will always be tempted to water it down to something more manageable. For this reason, I dare say that the average Protestant reader will come away from this book with a much better grasp of what justification means than they began with. But to say this is not to minimize the problems with what Leithart does here. I will list four briefly:

  • It is unfaithful to history. To claim that not all Protestants have always lived up the fullest articulation of their doctrine is one thing. But to claim that the confusion was there from the beginning, or that something was lacking which Leithart is just now bringing to light, simply does not appear accurate based on our survey here. It is unjust and misleading to claim to be saying something new that your predecessors failed to say, when you are really not.
  • It will mislead weak souls. The majority of Protestants today are deeply confused about their own tradition, and highly vulnerable to apologists trying to lure them away from it. Although Leithart is clearly no apologist for Rome, he certainly makes their job easier by telling confused Protestants that their forebears have been mixed up and inconsistent from the beginning.
  • It is unclear. I have argued that most of what Leithart says in these sections is actually quite traditional. But it is rarely as lucid and precise as the traditional expressions. Leithart speaks vaguely about justification as a change in “life-situation”; that is good enough for a popular-level book perhaps, but it is hardly an improvement on Turretin or Hodge or even Luther.
  • It leads Leithart to attempt unnecessarily radical reconstructive surgery. Because Leithart convinces himself that there is a profound ambiguity in Protestant soteriology, he goes looking for a culprit. And what he finds is Protestantism’s use of a nature/grace framework and a substance metaphysics. These therefore, Leithart concludes, must be rejected in order to have a workable doctrine of justification. Although Leithart’s exposition of justification remains pretty traditional, the true result of such a rejection and reconstruction can only be pretty radical. It is to this we shall turn in the next post.


Note: I will be traveling with my family for the next week, and accordingly will not have Pt. IV next Monday; it will have to wait until August 8th.


[1] For ease of quotation, I am using the online text here, so there are no page numbers in my citations from Luther.

[2] Again, I have used the online text for ease of quotation. See here.


[4] See for instance the fine discussion of Calvin in Maarten Kuivenhoven and Michael DeWalt, “Calvin’s Practical View of Adoption: Its Privileges and Duties,” here.

4 thoughts on “Does Justification Sola Fide Need an Upgrade? (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. III)

  1. I agree your concerns above, but I have some sympathy with Leithart’s instincts. If, despite the brilliance and clarity of many Reformed theologians, errors keep reappearing in those who follow and interpret them, then perhaps we are right to ask whether there is some underlying issue with how we have defined justification. Or to put it another way, if it takes someone as smart as you to explain why someone as smart as Leithart doesn’t need to critique the Protestant understanding of justification then perhaps he is right after all to suggest structural problems.

    I think you demonstrate in your article that Protestant soteriology is not deficient when considered in its totality, but perhaps we could still ponder whether it is somehow disordered in its arrangement or conceptually fractured. If this were the case then consideration of any one of its parts (e.g. justification) may not lead clearly or thoroughly enough to the consideration of the other parts (e.g. adoption). From this perspective what Leithart is attempting may not be radical reconstructive surgery but a Copernican-like shift – a simpler underlying model that leads to the same observations yet with greater predictive power and practical use. I haven’t read his book, so I don’t know if he even comes close to achieving that, but I suppose I am trying to justify(!) his attempt.


    • Thanks, Geoff. I think this is a very reasonable push-back, and I like the suggestion that what he is attempting is “a Copernican-like shift – a simpler underlying model that leads to the same observations yet with greater predictive power and practical use.”

      I think that that probably is a good characterization of what he is trying to do. I’m not convinced that it’s successful, though, mainly because I expect that once really pushed to clarify all the issues that need to be clarified to have a fully-functioning soteriological model, it would not in the end be any simpler or less open to misunderstanding/misuse. It’s a bit like those candidates who come along every election cycle promising to cut through the complexity of the tax code and give us a new one-page income tax code. It may start out as one page, but it’s pretty well guaranteed to end up as a few thousand. Just like a tax code, a soteriological model can be a rather complicated thing, since it’s forced to answer lots of different questions. Whenever you replace an old one with a new one, the new one will by definition look sleeker and simpler, but that may simply be because it has been able to get away with painting in broad brushstrokes and has left some key questions unanswered.

      So as a useful model for preaching, I think Leithart’s deliverdict paradigm has a lot going for it. As a replacement soteriology for systematic theology, I’m less convinced.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart |

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