Is faith our righteousness?
No, faith is the sole instrument whereby God graciously imputes to us the righteousness of Christ.
Where Do We Draw the Heresy Line?
In my recent book, Faith.Hope.Love, I devote a section of the book to affirming the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith against the Arminian doctrine of justification by faith. Not many, as far as I am aware, have written (at the popular level) on this difference, as it was debated historically. If there are recent books where this debate is discussed I’d be especially interested.
To understand the debate among Reformed theologians and their Remonstrant (Arminian) opponents, one has to have a fairly solid grasp of Scotist thought. In fact, one needs to understand how Scotist phrases can be used in different ways with different meanings in different contexts. Medieval theology and the terms that arose in that period are essential for understanding the thought of the Reformers and Post-Reformation theologians. For example, consider the terms acceptatio and acceptilatio, which were used by Scotus himself, but have their basis in Roman Law. The Reformed usually embraced one aspect of acceptatio (understood properly) but denied another aspect. Grotius, in his attack on Socinus, made use of acceptatio, but had to contend with Reformed critiques of his view where they accused him of introducing a form of acceptilatio into his doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction. According to many Reformed theologians, he was accused of an incipient Arminianism because they thought his view on the atonement was more in line with acceptilatio than acceptatio. (Of course, a lot was in the definition of the terms; whoever defines the terms can win the debate).
Reformed theologians generally believed that Christ’s payment must be equivalent to what our sufferings deserve. Hence there is an “exact punishment” and thus God’s gracious acceptation (“The fruits of the death of Christ are the issues of merit, bottomed on God’s gracious acceptation, and reckoned as of debt. He for whom a ransom is paid has a right unto his liberty by virtue of that payment” – Owen). God gives a value to an act (e.g., the death of Christ) that is not different from the intrinsic value of the act. Grotius did not believe this, and so he is critiqued for holding to acceptilatio instead because he feels a partial payment is sufficient instead of a full payment. Grotius denied this was the implication of his view, of course, but not all Reformed theologians were persuaded.
For most of the Reformed, there is an intrinsic value to Christ’s substitutionary death and so the value is in the death, not just the value God determines to freely accept as sufficient. So just because acceptatio is used for the Reformed, it does not follow that they are using the term with a Scotist understanding. Scholars continue to make this mistake, and I would point out their names but one or two are friends of mine.
Typically, acceptilatio has been understood as a fictional payment (solutio imaginaria) or, theologically, God’s gracious acceptance for something offered that is not equivalent to the intrinsic worth of the act offered to God. Acceptilatio as “partial payment” means God could be satisfied with a payment that is not full (i.e., our “sincere obedience” in sanctification). Alister McGrath claims, in his somewhat unreliable book, Iustitia Dei (p. 239), that the Protestants generally held to acceptilatio in their doctrine of justification, but this is wrong. I think it may be more accurate to suggest that acceptilatio is reserved for sanctification, not justification. If we discuss justification, it is crucial we stick with acceptatio and not acceptilatio, otherwise we become Arminians!
A Scotist could argue that we can produce an imperfect act (i.e., love) that may merit eternal life, due to God’s acceptatio. For the Reformed, our act of faith does not fulfill this function of meriting our salvation, however. Rather, there is in justification an act of divine acceptatio, but not with regards to our faith but our person.
Incidentally, when we discuss “how many works are necessary for salvation” it is important to note that in the realm of acceptatio, only Christ’s full obedience to the law will suffice because of the intrinsic value of his law-keeping before the justice of God. If we are speaking of acceptilatio, then we must move to the realm of sanctification where we can speak of “sincere obedience” as sufficient for walking on the path to glorification, noting of course that only Christ’s merit has sufficient value to grant us the right to heaven.
Franciscus Gomarus made the contention: “not the doctrine of predestination but that of justification” became the “cardinal point on which Arminius deviated from Reformed doctrine.” Likewise, Herman Witsius says, “It is well known that the reformed churches condemned Arminius and his followers, for saying that faith comes to be considered in the matter of justification as a work or act of ours.”
So is Arminius unorthodox on justification? Well, decide for yourself! I think he is unorthodox, if judged by Reformed standards, but whether he is therefore heretical is another question altogether, and one not easily answered in my view.
As I note in Faith.Hope.Love, for Arminius, because of the gracious estimation of God, he credits our faith as our righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is not imputed to believers, according to at least the later Arminius. He did not believe Christ’s righteousness could be imputed. In discussing justification, Arminius made use of the Latin term acceptilatio, which means a “formal release from an obligation.” Imperfect faith, then, is accepted by God’s gracious estimation as righteousness. Or to put it another way, the human act of faith is by grace counted as evangelical righteousness, as if it were the complete fulfillment of the whole law, even though it is not. This genuine human act comes forth from the ability to choose (Faith. Hope. Love, p. 52).
In Arminius’s view, our imperfect act of faith is accepted by God, and thus we merit eternal life.
This is a deviation from Reformed theology in this way:
[For the Arminian], Because the act of faith constitutes righteousness, God declares a sinner justified not because of Christ’s imputed righteousness received by faith but because of faith counted as righteousness. The ground of justification is my faith, not Christ’s righteousness. However, as Bavinck correctly argues, “Faith never occurs as righteousness itself or as a part of it. . . . Faith does not justify by its own essence or act because itself is righteousness, but by its content, because it is faith in Christ, who is our righteousness.” Indeed, what would be the point of Christ as the object of faith if faith itself were our righteousness?
From the Arminian Petrus Bertius we might conclude that the Reformed and Remonstrants seemed to agree on imputation as the formal cause (i.e., structure) of justification but differed on the material cause (i.e., what is actually imputed). What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ’s righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas, as noted above, the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called formal cause there was an important difference between the two camps. Based on what I have said above, imputation for the Arminians is an aestimatio (“estimation”)— God considers our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem (“according to truth”)— God considers Christ’s righteousness as ours, precisely because it is ours, through union with him. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same as that which he passes on those who belong to him— “righteous”— but only through imputation. (Faith.Hope.Love, p. 53).
Heresy or Error?
When we discourse on justification by faith, especially in Reformed circles, and when people hurl around words like “another gospel”, “heresy”, “neonomianism”, “Shepherdite”, etc., we should note, of course, that there is no uniform doctrine of justification in Christendom. That does not mean there is no correct doctrine of justification, but we should be aware that the typical Reformed view is actually the minority view.
For that reason, we might wish to keep in mind the following observations:
- When we label a particular view “another gospel” we are effectively making a charge of heresy and, typically, willful heretics (obstinately teaching their doctrine) are not going to a good place. Hence Paul’s “anathema”.
If some Reformed folk deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, such as Richard Vines, Thomas Gataker, and William Twisse, are they as “bad” as Arminius? (Of course not).
Those of us who hold to the Reformed view described above (i.e., that we really possess Christ’s righteousness through imputation and thus God accepts our person), need to remember the vast majority of Christians do not. Hence, we need to be teaching the glories of this doctrine by showing how it is a better way than other views on justification.
Some of this is complex stuff. Tweeting about these issues is really dumb. Questioning someone’s orthodoxy in 140 characters should generally be avoided, I would think. Hinting that someone is unorthodox or subtweeting really has to be on one of the lowest bars of theological discourse.
We should remember that we are not justified by believing in the fully formed doctrine of justification by faith alone. We are justified by resting in Christ alone. I like how the PCA asks new members the following: “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?” (I think an Arminian could answer yes, and hence be a member in good standing in a PCA church).
Those who have very little ecclesiastical experience, no formal theological training, and zero publications on the matters they discourse about online, ought to really hold off writing in such a way as to hint at or even explicitly claim that someone is heretical. Since these issues are so complex, this type of thing should be left to church courts, established theologians, and pastors who have to be accountable for the charges they make. I’m not against amateur blogging, but I am against amateurs writing without appropriate circumspection. (I mean, some of us have had to go through extensive examinations from other ministers; we have had to be peer-reviewed; and we’ve passed rigorous courses of study in our field. There should be a little respect for the process of the church, I would think).
Those who are particularly fond of identifying people with “wobbly” or “wrong” views on justification might need to follow through with their “charges” and explain to us where this leaves those who they think depart from orthodoxy. Are they in error or damnable error? Are they false teachers, de facto, or generally faithful teachers who have erred in a place? I think it is important for us to follow through the implications of our critique against individuals.
* I am thankful for discussions with G.A. van den Brink for insight on these isssues.