by Phil Johnson
I've been reading the comments for the past two days, and it occurs to me that someone desperately needs to post something of substance here. So I'm going to do something I've wanted to do since I started blogging last year: This is the start of a series on the doctrine of justification by faith and the principle of imputation.Second Corinthians 5:21 is one of my favorite verses of Scripture: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."
The whole gospel message is contained in embryo in those words. That short statement is crucial to our understanding of the nature of the atonement, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the twin principles of imputation and substitution. It teaches great truths about the character of God, the sinlessness of Christ, and the simplicity of salvation. It summarizes the core truth of biblical soteriology. It has important implications for Christology. And it even says something about theology proper, because it plainly assumes the sovereignty of God, the love of God, the justice of God, and the grace of God.
This is one of those crystal-clear verses that helps us make sense of all the rest of Scripture. It helps explain the significance of the priestly and sacrificial laws of the Old Testament. It thoroughly illuminates the meaning of the cross of Christ. It reminds us why Christ is the only way of salvation from sin. It shows why no good works performed by sinners could ever contribute an iota to their salvation. And it demonstrates how salvation was accomplished for us without any of our own worksand yet in a way that completely fulfilled God's law, upheld His justice, and vindicated His own righteousness.
In other words to borrow an expression from Romans 3:26, here is how God can "be just, and the justifier of [those who believe] in Jesus." This text explains how God can pardon sinners and treat them as righteous without compromising His own impeccable righteousness or lowering His perfect standards in any way.
I love John MacArthur's summary of the meaning of this text, and it bears repeating. It's also a pretty good paraphrase of the text itself: "On the cross, God treated Christ as if He had committed all the sins of every sinner who would ever believe, so that He could treat believers as if they had lived Christ's perfect life."
In a series of posts that will probably stretch across the next two weeks or longer, I want to explore further the far-reaching ramifications of this simple verse. I think it's a good corrective for much that is lacking in contemporary evangelicalism's truncated gospel message.
PS: The Pulpit Live blog now has open comments and an RSS feed. We've put a graphic link in the form of a small ad in our right sidebar to highlight the best of whatever is current over there. But here's something a lot of people missed anyway: Some interesting details about the size and shape of the pulpit at Grace Community Church.
The Wright Stuff
PPS: Somewhat germane to the topic of sola fide and justification by faith, over at Reformed Catholicism, Jamey Bennett posts this critical review of my comments on NT Wright and the New Perspective on Paul. (He's reviewing a chapter of mine from the book Fool's Gold, which chapter was a slightly edited version of a seminar I did at the Shepherds' Conference a couple of years ago.)
I'll say this for Jamey: his comments are measured and reasonable, absent the tone of smug and ill-humored snideness often favored by a few of the regulars over at Reformed Catholicism. He rightly zings me for referring to Wright as an "Archbishop." (But then he commits a similar gaffe by referring to John MacArthur as my editor. Well, OK. On second thought, JM does sometimes edit me.)
Jamey at least did me the favor of reading the chapter before criticizing it, and he interacts with what I actually said (something some better-known critics have egregiously failed to do), as opposed to merely questioning my right to criticize the Bishop at all.
As a matter of fact, Jamey turns the normal defense of Wright completely on its head. Instead of complaining that no one has a right to critique Wright's popular-level books without first doing dissertation-level work on all his scholarly tomes, Jamey acknowledges that he himself has read only Wright's "... for everyone" commentaries. He confesses that he hasn't even read the book I was critiquing.
Nonetheless, Jamey objects to my criticism of Wright's view of justification as an incomplete process which culminates in a "declaration [that] will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life." My complaint was that Wright seems to smuggle the believer's own works into the justification formula with that definition. But Jamey says he sees no difference between that and John MacArthur's view that salvation (note: MacArthur does not say "justification") is a process that won't be complete until we are glorified.
Jamey's comments reflect a point of confusionthe equating of justification with all of salvationthat I would regard as the source of many evils in the world of contemporary Protestant soteriology. It's the very same error made by the advocates of antinomian no-lordship theology (though they push it to the extreme opposite conclusion from the "Reformed Catholicism" gang).
Anyway, the timing of this is propitious. My current series of blogposts on 2 Corinthians 5:21 will enable me to elaborate on some of the issues Jamey's review deals with.