Justification by Faith Alone & Confessional Confusion

Founders Journal · Summer 2001 · pp. 23-29

Justification by Faith Alone & Confessional Confusion

Douglas R. Shivers

By the tender age of eleven my world had begun to look “fuzzy.” This “fuzziness” did not seem to have any great affect on my schoolwork, nor had I noticed a diminishing of my quality of life. I was perfectly content with my view of the world–perfectly content until that incredible day when I put on eyeglasses and my vision of the world was corrected. What an astonishing experience, that correction! Suddenly, trees had leaves! Birds had feathers! There were ants on the ground! And there was no turning back. Now that I had the standard of correct vision, “fuzziness” was never again an option.

Today, there is a terrible “fuzziness” afflicting Southern Baptist theology. The central doctrine of salvation has become blurred. It takes no more than a few seconds to gather armloads of first proofs for this assertion: just ask a few believers to define the central doctrine of salvation. Doctrinal vision is so blurred that entire congregations can not clearly read the banner words at the top of salvation’s vision chart: JUSTIFICATION BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE. I have had lifelong Southern Baptists tell me they have never heard of justification. At a recent assembly of Southern Baptist leadership, a soloist gave brief testimony about his hope for heaven: “I hope that if I work hard enough and I’m good enough, one day I’ll go to heaven and see Momma.” As shocked as I was by what he said, I was even more stunned by the number of “amens” that rumbled through the congregation. When Southern Baptists can endorse a man’s hope for salvation by works, biblical ignorance has won the day. This is a critical ignorance. Without some understanding of justification there is no salvation and there is no true assurance for those who are saved.

One reason for this lack of understanding in the pew (and the pulpit) is the absence of a clearly articulated view of justification in our confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. When compared with previous confessions, the current statement is rather anemic:

Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer into a relationship of peace and favor with God.[1]

This appears in the article “Salvation” which divides the subject of salvation into three parts: “Regeneration,” “Sanctification” and “Glorification.” The statement on justification is found in the section “Regeneration.” It doesn’t even make the bold print. In earlier confessions, the doctrine of justification was given a full paragraph and a separate heading. Since 1963 it has been diminished to two sentences and is considered a subset of regeneration. This minimizing of justification is dangerous. It is also a betrayal of our previous confessional history. Consider the following excerpts,

The Baptist Faith and Message, 1925:

Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of righteousness of all sinners who believe in Christ. The blessing is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but through the redemption that is in and through Jesus Christ. It brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other needed blessing.[2]

The New Hampshire Confession, 1833:

[We believe] That the great Gospel blessing which Christ of his fulness bestows on such as believe in Him, is Justification; that Justification consists in the pardon of sin and the promise of eternal life, on principles of righteousness; that it is bestowed not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through His own redemption and righteousness, [by virtue of which faith his perfect righteousness is freely imputed to us of God;] that it brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other blessing needful for time and eternity.[3]

The Second London Confession, 1689:

Those whom God Effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing Righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting, and accepting their Persons as Righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone, not by imputing faith it self, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their Righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole Law, and passive obedience in his death, for their whole and sole Righteousness, they receiving, and resting on him, and his Righteousness, by Faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.[4]

The London Confession, 1644:

That those which have union with Christ, are justified from all their sinnes, past, present, and to come, by the blood of Christ; which justification wee conceive to be a gracious and free acquittance of a guiltie, sinfull creature, from all sin by God, through the satisfaction that Christ hath made by his death; and this applyed in the manifestation of it through faith.[5]

In these confessions, justification isn’t backstage. It’s front and center. Each confession clearly states: (1) Christ’s sinless life and atoning death are the only basis for justification, (2) Regeneration is not accomplished by the sinner, but is a monergistic act by God, and (3) Faith is the gift of God, not a work by the sinner. The 1963 confession is not so clear. In fact, when Hobbs explains this part of the confession in his commentary he comes up with a novel interpretation of justification as it relates to the justice of God.

But they [the commandments] must be kept perfectly. Failure in one law made one as guilty as though he had failed in all. No man does as good as he knows. So no man keeps God’s law perfectly, whether it be the written law or that in pagan hearts. Someone may object that God is unjust in making such a demand. The perfect life of Jesus speaks to the contrary. He proved God “just” in his demand for perfect righteousness. Having done so, God in Christ became the “justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). This he did by paying the price for each person’s sin in his atoning death, that through faith in him we might receive the righteousness of God which is in his Son.[6]

In Romans 3, Paul is not trying to defend God; he is not trying to prove that God was just in demanding perfect righteousness. The debate is not about whether or not God was reasonable. The declaration is about the extraordinary means by which a God of perfect righteousness can justify unjust sinners and still remain “just.”

Lack of clarity on justification is further evidenced by a confused chronology in salvation: “Regeneration is the result of conviction of sin, repentance from sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and the confession of that faith.”[7] Therefore, we conclude regeneration is within the power of the sinner. When the sinner comes under conviction, repents and believes, he is regenerated. In fact, one must repent to an appropriate degree before regeneration takes place: “Thus one abhors sin not only because of what it does to one’s self but to God. This is true repentance necessary for regeneration.”[8] The sad truth is the entire article smacks of a view of salvation based on “infused” rather than “imputed” righteousness, a view which gives great abilities to the sinner which are prior to any supernatural work by God. The confession is a monument to the success of Charles Finney’s views of salvation.[9]

This doctrinal nearsightedness (encouraging focus on self rather than Christ) not only blurs regeneration in salvation, it also puts assurance on unsteady ground. There is the tendency today to look for Christ “inside” as the basis for assurance and acceptance with God. This is the “infused” view of grace. It is reflected in the language addressed to evangelistic prospects, “Let Jesus come into your heart” or “Invite Jesus into your heart.” This is actually a confusing thing to say to sinners. Spurgeon noted a similar tendency in his day:

Justification by faith must never be obscured, and yet all are not clear upon it… Many do this when addressing children, and I notice that they generally speak to the little ones about loving Jesus, and not upon believing in him. This must leave a mischievous impression upon youthful minds and take them off from the true way of peace.[10]

A myopic inward look can never result in true assurance. Scripture does not direct us inward but outward. Though regeneration is a reality, the basis for our acceptance with God is not our inner change. The inner change is not complete; it is a mixed work. Yes, the principle of righteousness has been implanted. The believer is a new creature, but not a perfected creature. The perfection which God requires is not found by looking inward at my sanctification but rather outward to the Lord Jesus Christ as my perfect righteousness.

Is it important, then, to have clarity on the doctrine of justification in our confessions? It may be legitimate to ask, “In these times of theological illiteracy, who even reads our confession?” I grant that not many folks read anything worthwhile, much less confessions. I contend, however, that in theological education, we do look at confessions, and that the current expression of Southern Baptists is woefully inadequate and actually confusing. I contend that this confusion is tragic, for it leads sinners astray and it destroys the true basis for assurance in believers. When preachers cannot distinguish and articulate these truths, and then cannot find help to do so in a sound confession, the task is made much more difficult. Recovery of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone ought to be our priority. We need to heed the words of the great pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle,

I am afraid we say a great deal at times which rather lumbers and cumbers the gospel than makes it clear…I mean to let it stand out simply before you, that the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ are the one foundation upon which we must depend for eternal salvation, and upon that alone; and if we do so depend we shall most assuredly be saved.[11]

When I was eleven years old, the world was not fuzzy. I was the one with the problem. Likewise, justification is just as it has always been…the glorious proclamation and provision of God. The modern church is the one with the problem. We should use every means possible, including our confessions, to correct distortions and restore the unmistakable declarations that loose us from the confusion of ignorance. The clear vision of justification springing forth in the minds and hearts of sinners and believers is a glorious revelation. And fuzzy is never again an option.


Notes

1 Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message, (Nashville: Convention Press, 1971, revised, 1996), p. 48.

2 H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), p. 509.

3 “The New Hampshire Confession” in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1959), p. 363.

4 “Justification,” Chapter XI, paragraph 1, “Second London Confession, 1689, cited in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1959), pp. 265-266.

5 “The London Confession, 1644,” in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1959), p. 164.

6 Hobbs, p. 49.

7 Ibid., p. 52.

8 Ibid., emphasis mine.

9 See David H. Linden, “Charles G. Finney’s Doctrine of Justification,” in Reformation and Revival Journal, 6:4, Fall 1997, pp. 109-132. Also, Iain Murray’s marvelous work, Revival and Revivalism, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994).

10 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students, (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1990), Book 2:183-184.

11 C. H. Spurgeon, “A Monument For the Dead, a Voice To the Living,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, (Pasadena TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1973), 1833 29:33.