What is at Stake (Justification Debate)

Derek Ouellette —  April 15, 2010

Someone might think there is not much at stake in this debate. There is. (I state that matter-of-factly.)

After reading the last post it should be obvious that the doctrine of Imputation hangs in the balance. If Wright is correct then the doctrine of Imputation is unnecessary, superfluous and even simply wrong.

J.I Packer, Michael Bird, Larry Helyer and other Reformed scholars have all said explicitly that there is no verse in the bible that teaches Imputation (neither that we have been imputed Christ’s righteousness, nor that every individual has been imputed Adam’s particular sin). It is for this reason that John Wesley rejected this doctrine for most of his career (only to accept it on the condition that “imputation” never be separated from “impartation”) and why N.T. Wright and others reject it.

But the fact that the bible does not explicitly teach imputation does not stop Packer, Bird or Helyer from embracing that doctrine. Listen to Bird’s statement here:

“I don’t think that any single text in the New Testament speaks of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers, but spread throughout the New Testament we find the ingredients for it when taken collectively.”

So there you have it, the “ingredients” are there. Does anyone even know what that means, the “ingredients”? A little bit of this and a little bit of that and voila: a doctrine. (Too many doctrines are made that way.) I have no problem with the idea that believers have been imputed Christ’s righteousness except that the bible does not seem to teach it and that there are other ways to accomplish what imputation seeks to do. (I do have a serious problem with the imputation of Adam’s sin on every individual. It is this reverse side of the doctrine of imputation that leads people like Jonathan Edwards to smugly declare children to be “infinitely more hateful then vipers”.)

But imputation is not the real issue for classical reformers, it is only a symptom. We could talk about their understanding of “works” or “faith” or “grace” or “justification” and so on. All of these are at stake one way or another (for the Reformers) but they are not the bottom line. The root of the problem, the real issue at stake is the Reformed Tradition. The entire Reformation was built on the foundation of Luther’s Justification by Faith Alone. Centuries of Creeds, respected scholars, heroes of the faith and even the greatest of all Reform giants, John Calvin himself, systemized, expounded, exegete, taught, preached and swore allegiance to this Great Tradition which proudly claims support from the scriptures. It would be a devastating blow to the Reformed ego if it could be shown from the Biblical text in historical context that all of this was built on a mistake.

For Piper, Sproul and others, the stakes are very high.

For Wright the stakes are equally high. If the root of the issue for Reformers is Tradition then the root of the issue for Wright is the scriptures. He says that “what is missing” in Reformed traditional scholarship is “an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition…” What he finds frustrating then is when he does this, when Wright insists on the scriptures, he is accused by Piper of doing away with 1500 years of tradition (does anyone else see the irony in that?). N.T. Wright believes that the traditional Reformers are more defensive of their traditions and creeds then in what the scriptures might actually reveal. To suggest that the Reformers did not get it all right the first time terrifies some of these guys.

For Wright, the stakes are nothing short of cosmic proportions. When asked what would be missing if Piper’s views were adopted, he answered:

“What’s missing is the big, Pauline picture of God’s gospel going out to redeem the whole world, all of creation, with ourselves as part of that. What’s missing is the big, Pauline view of the church, Jew and Gentile on equal footing, as the sign to the powers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they aren’t. What’s missing is the key work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the already-justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do ‘please God’ as Paul says again and again (but as Reformed theology is shy of lest it smack of smuggling in works-righteousness again). What’s missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition…”

It is my hope that you begin to get a sense of what is at stake. In the long run the stakes involve many issues including how to properly understand the relationship between faith and works, the atonement and half a dozen other issues. In the short run it is nothing short of which is supreme, Scripture or Tradition (keeping in mind that this debate is internal and has nothing to do with the Catholic Church).

Traditional Reformers can no longer get away with smugly waving off all of their opponents by claiming the biblical high ground as long as they continue to canonize the traditions of Luther and Calvin with unquestionable allegiance.

I think by now you probably have something of an idea as to why this debate matters, but as I “Post-Conservative” myself I feel pressed to write the next post anyways.

We have now seen each view summarized (post one) and we also now have a sense of what is at stake (hopefully). My views have been made crystal. I do not agree with Wright on all matters, but on this subject when he explains the scriptures I am inclined to agree. Frankly, accepting the biblical testimony in context over my own tradition has been very enlightening, invigorating, liberating, and joyful.

So next I will briefly suggest why this matters (as if this post didn’t already do that).

***Stay Tuned***

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • Tom

    The doctrine of imputation is simply not needed. All that’s needed, if you will, is contained in the doctrines of Sanctification.

    What’s central here, however, is what Rick Warren said, “It’s not about us!”

    The Beatific Vision might say it well … it’s God, what God has done, is doing and will do. And, by grace, we are swept up into it. That’s the good news!

    Much of American Christianity has been fixated on “what happens to us” – miracle and conversion stories abound, as anxious Christians try to prove to themselves, to the world, who God is by what God is doing in their lives. Both liberals and conservatives have been caught up into this ego-centered spirituality.

    It has spawned a lot of toxic ideas and behaviors.

    If Paul were around, he might well say to us, “Pay attention to your Jewish sisters and brothers.”

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette


    Well said, though I’m not sure observing our Jewish sisters and brothers of the 21st century would be similar to our Jewish sisters and brothers of the 1st century. Deserves more thought from me…

    But about imputation, the thing is that Traditional Reformers usually get defensive because they think that someone like me is anti-imputation for the sake of hating the doctrine. Truth is, I see little wrong with this doctrine (in it’s positive way) except for the most important reason: the Bible does NOT seem to teach it and it does teach other things that perform the function imputation was designed to do.
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..What is at Stake (Justification Debate) =-.