Justification and the Finished Work of Christ

Text: Romans 5:1-11

Introduction:  Throughout this series on Romans, I have made repeated references


[1] to the so-called “New Perspectives on Paul,” (NPP) and the individuals commonly associated with it (E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and N. T. Wright). N. T. Wright in particular, because he identifies himself as an evangelical and exercises a tremendous influence in evangelical circles (John Armstrong, and the representatives of what goes by the name “The Federal Vision,” which includes the likes of Doug Wilson, and the folks associated with Credenda/Agenda). In addition, I have also addressed the views of Norman Shepherd since in many ways his understanding of justification parallels that of N. T. Wright. They share in common the following: (1) a rejection of the traditional Reformational understanding of sola fide; (2) a rejection of the doctrine of the Covenant of Works; (3) a rejection of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (in Wright’s case, he rejects the whole concept of imputation).[2]

What I personally find distressing is that these aberrant views on so important a subject as justification are simply considered as a variant of evangelical theology and this is what makes them so lethally dangerous. What makes the NPP (especially as seen in the case of N. T. Wright) most harmful to the church is its use of terminology. Advocates of the NPP use terms such as sin, justification, works, faith, and gospel, but have given them entirely different meanings. Wright, for example, says justification has nothing to do with the gospel, especially as the Reformers understood it.[3] J. Gresham Machen’s words, though written some eighty years ago, still apply to this very issue. “A terrible crisis,” writes Machen, “unquestionably has arisen in the Church. In the ministry of evangelical churches are to be found hosts of those who reject the gospel of Christ. By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.”[4] It is this use of orthodox nomenclature that makes the NPP seemingly harmless and has some within Reformed circles thinking that Wright is no foe of the Reformation. Instead he is welcomed with open arms into our churches.

George Grant, a highly respected author who has tremendous influence in the realm of Christian education, states in the pages of World Magazine, that Wright “weighs the evidence and finds that only historic biblical orthodoxy has sufficiently answered the thorny questions of the apostle’s contribution to the faith…Mr. Wright pores over the New Testament data with forensic precision to add new weight to a conservative theological interpretation.”[5] Similarly, Douglas Wilson, another highly influential figure in the field of Christian education, devoted a whole issue of Credenda/Agenda to the NPP, highlighting and praising Wright and casting aspersions on Luther.[6] In another issue Wilson calls Wright “an outstanding exegete,” who “does not shy away from showing how the text conflicts with ‘standard’ interpretations.”[7] The trained theologian or New Testament scholar will readily recognize that although Wright is using orthodox nomenclature, he has impregnated these terms with different meanings, but the average person in the pew who reads Grant’s review or Wilson’s glowing assessments of Wright will generally take Grant’s or Wilson’s endorsement at face value. Likewise, Peter Enns, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) positively reviewed two volumes of sermons by Wright. Enns writes, “I recommend these volumes without reservation (my emphasis) to all who wish to know better the biblical Christ and bring the challenge of this Christ to those around them.”[8] Yet, if Wright’s views on gospel, sin, justification, and faith stand behind his preaching, then we must wonder if Wright’s Jesus truly is “the biblical Christ.”[9]

I.          The Fact of Our Justification:

A.        What We Have (Rom. 5:1-2):  In the opening of the fifth chapter the apostle writes, “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” It is possible that he is implicitly answering a question that might have arisen from the conclusion of the preceding chapter. It would have been a natural thing for a doubter, or questioner, to ask in objecting to the faith way of salvation, “Is this method safe? Will it enable us to hold out to the end? After all faith is a very tenuous thing. Can it stand up when the trials of life come to us?” In setting forth what we have Paul mentions peace, which was obtained in the past, access, which is our present possession, and hope, which stretches out into the future (cf. Col. 3:4). The expression “peace with God” in Romans 5 is not to be confused with “the peace of God” (Phil. 4:6-7). “The idea here,” writes Boice, “is not that we are upset and therefore need to become trusting and more tranquil, but rather that we have been at war with God and He with us, because of our sin, and that peace has nevertheless been provided for us by God—if we have been justified through faith in Jesus Christ.”[10]

B.        What We Should Do (Rom. 5:1,3):  The apostle has said that we should go on enjoying the peace we have, and he adds in verse three that we should also glory in tribulations. That seems a rather strange thing to say, does it not? It fairly cries out for explanation, and that is what Paul gives in the following verses.

C.        Why We Should Do It (Rom. 5:3-5):  The word “knowing” introduces the ground upon which we should boast in our tribulations. Knowledge is the ground of faith in Paul’s mind, and in this case it is the knowledge of a spiritual process. Tribulation introduces a pattern of growth in the believer’s life that concludes with the possession of what we had before it began and an approved character. Tribulations really strengthen us, contrary to what one might think. The first thing Paul says is that tribulations work patience. Trials come from Him (cf. 8:35-39), and they give occasion for the exhibition of His power and grace (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9). The apostle says that patience does its work, too. It produces experience, a word that means something like an approved character. Cf. Phil. 2:22; 2 Cor. 2:9; 8:2; 9:13; 13:3. And finally, experience works hope. As Cranfield says, “To have one’s faith proved by God in the fires of tribulation and sustained by Him so as to stand the test is to have one’s hope in Him and in the fulfillment of His promises, one’s hope of His glory (v. 2), strengthened and confirmed.”[11] The final step in the process is expressed in verse five, “And hope maketh not ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us.” We have what we began with when the tribulations came, that is, hope, plus the approved character given through the trials. And this hope does not disappoint us by proving to be a false and illusory thing. The reason is given in the words that follow. The love of God for us is the pledge that the hope it promises is valid through the indwelling Spirit (cf. 8:16). The verb “shed abroad” expresses the unstinting lavishness of the giving of the Third Person of the Trinity. The lavish nature of the giving will be spelled out in verses six through eight.

II.         The Certainty of Our Justification:

A.        What We Were (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10):  The following three verses, verses six through eight, describe the nature of the divine love referred to in verse five. And, if one were to ask, “Paul, how do we know His love?,” the answer would come, “by His death.” That is the theme that the apostle expounds in these verses. Four descriptions of the sinner are given in these verses. In verse six he is said to be, “without strength,” and “ungodly.” In verse eight he is referred to by the word, “sinners.” While in verse ten he is described by the term, “enemies.” To sum up what Paul says about the terms we could say, the helpless He died for, the ungodly He justified, the sinner He saved, and the enemy He reconciled to Himself.

B.        What He Did (Rom. 5:8):  What He did is expressed in the eighth verse, one of the most touching and beautiful that the apostle ever wrote, “But God commendeth His love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The apostle’s use of the present tense in “commendeth” should be noted. While the act of dying on the cross is an event of the past, the fact that it did occur remains as a present proof and encouragement of the love of God for His saints. That the apostle has believers in mind is clear from the use of the first person plural pronouns, “us.” Paul makes much of the fact that He died for us when we were yet “sinners.” Note the Apostle’s emphasis. It is the reality of our lost condition and nature of our sinfulness that is underscored (and not, as Wright would have us believe, that we lacked membership in the covenant community).

III.        The Enjoyment of Our Justification:

A.        It Guarantees Our Future Salvation (Rom. 5:9-10):  Cranfield comments, “Having described in vv. 6-8 the nature of God’s love for us, to the reality of which (brought home to our hearts by the Holy Spirit) he had appealed in v. 5 as proof that our hope will not disappoint us, he now returns to the subject of our hope’s not disappointing and affirms the certainty of our hope’s fulfillment, of our final salvation, in two parallel statements (vv. 9 and 10), both in the form of the argumentum a minori ad maius (called by the Rabbis kal wahomer, i.e.’light and heavy’.”[12] It is a marvelous a fortiori, and it contains one of the most convincing arguments for the security of the believer, and for the definiteness of the atonement also. It is a brilliant climax to the section as Paul reasons from the death of Christ to the certainty of final salvation. The “then” introduces the inference from the preceding statement concerning His death. The key verse is the tenth verse, which contains the second of the argumenta a minori ad maius. This type of argument is one that contains a conclusion that follows with even greater logical necessity than another already accepted in the argument. In this case the argument already accepted is the reconciliation of enemies to God by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. If that is accepted, then with even greater logical necessity it follows that the former enemies will be saved by the sharing of His life. In the verse there is a triple antithesis, with an advance in the last phrase, rendered by the KJV, “by His life.”

The first antithesis is that of “enemies” and “reconciled.” The second is that of “were reconciled” and “shall be saved.” The third is that of “through the death of His Son” and “by His life.” The advance in the last clause is seen with one note that the preposition translated by “by” in the KJV is the preposition en, which means in. One would have expected another “by,” or another dia in the original, for the phrase rendered “by the death of His Son” contains a dia. The apostle advances from through His life to in His life, because he wants to stress the union that now obtains by virtue of the representative death of the Son. What, then, is the resulting sense of the apostle’s argument? Simply stated, it is this: If He has done the most for us, giving us a crucified Savior for our reconciliation when we were enemies, He surely will give us the least, save us through to the end, now that we have become friends, reconciled to Him. Or, surely if He has done the best for us, He will do the rest. As Sanday and Headlam put it, “If the first intervention cost the death of His Son, the second costs nothing, but follows naturally from the share which we have in His life.”[13] They in their comment refer to the Pauline use of en in the last phrase of the verse when they speak of “from the share, which we have in His life.”[14] The reference of the en may be to 8:34 and the intercession of the Son for us now. It is surely not a reference to deliverance from the dominion of sin, as some Higher Life Bible teachers have thought.[15]  The salvation is defined by the statement of verse nine, “saved from wrath.” Paul is thinking of the deliverance of the believer from the wrath and condemnation of sin, not from its dominion in the believer’s life, except insofar as the latter follows from the former. The argument, thus, is the ne plus ultra of the doctrine of the security of the believer. If, when we were enemies, He reconciled us to Himself by giving His Son as a penal, substitutionary sacrifice for sin, He will surely do that which is less, now that we are friends, reconciled, deliver us from the wrath to come, and especially since we now share in the life of our Representative through the union consummated with Him. It is the kind of argument that cannot be refuted. The logic is inescapable. Cf. Jud. 13:23. From the verse, therefore, we derive the greatest assurance of the certainty of the salvation that is given by grace through faith.

B.        It Guarantees Our Future Exultation (Rom. 5:11):  Verse eleven is the climax of the section. There are several things to note. In the first place, the rendering of the KJV of the Greek word katallagen, “atonement,” is surely wrong. The word means reconciliation. The word atonement is an Old Testament word, referring to the covering of sin. It is not found at all in the New Testament, for sin is there not simply covered by the death of Christ, but paid for and removed. In the second place, there exists a question over the rendering of the participle kauchomenoi, rendered in the KJV by “we joy.” It may be taken in this way, construed as an indicative, and many commentators take it that way. It may also be taken as an imperative, being translated, then, “And not only so, but joy in God,” etc. That is less likely, since the construction is not frequent in the New Testament. In the third place, the most obvious way to take the participle is to take it as modifying the subject of the last finite verb. In this case it would modify the subject of the last finite verb. In this case it would modify the subject of the verb rendered “we shall be saved.” That is the most common force of a participle, and the sense is excellent here. The antithetical “now,” opposed to the future sense of the verb, “we shall be saved,” supports the taking of the participle as modifying the subject, “we.” We would then render the last verse, “And not only so, but we shall be saved” boasting in our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have simply this: We shall be not only saved in our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation.” The meaning of Paul, then, would be simply this: We shall be not only saved by sharing in His life, but we shall be saved, or carried right on through to heaven, boasting in our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, a triumphant, abundant entrance into glory is assured the saints for whom He has died.[16] If however, the traditional Reformational understanding of sola fide is jettisoned then all that is stated here is mute. Justification according to the advocates of the New Perspective(s) tell us that justification has nothing to do with the gospel or with salvation. In N. T. Wright’s scheme, the Gospel centers around the Lordship of Christ, particularly in the incarnation and as such the focus is on the Person of Christ and not the work of Christ in His active and passive obedience. Justification, according to Wright, does not have to do with traditional Reformed categories (Wright ends up admitting that the forgiveness of sins is really a secondary feature of covenant membership!)[17]

Conclusion:  Doug Wilson, despite his on-going efforts to assure everyone that he still affirms sola fide,[18] nonetheless takes a stance on N. T. Wright that is disturbing. Critics of Wright are scolded by Wilson, and called “Orthodusty” and whatever areas disagreement Wilson might have with Wright, these are minor and no cause for alarm.[19] Wilson is wrong and seriously so. To suggest, as Wilson does, that one may embrace much of what N. T. Wright is advocating and lose nothing that the Reformation taught by sola fide, is as Ligon Duncan writes, “patently impossible by any historic Protestant and evangelical standard. Wright’s view necessitates the loss of the doctrines of imputation, the active obedience of Christ, the extrinsic ground of justification, and faith as the alone instrument of justification (to mention only a few). In other words, sola fide is mangled beyond recognition in Wright’s paradigm. To commend it as benign is the height of naivete.”[20] Luther declared that if the article of justification (sola fide) stands, the church stands but if it falls, the church falls. Calvin called the doctrine “the main hinge on which religion turns,” (Institutes, III, XI.1) while one of his successors at Geneva, Francis Turretin, declared that it is “of the greatest importance…the principal rampart of the Christian religion…This being adulterated or subverted, it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places.”[21] More recently, Reformed theologian Robert Reymond has written of justification that it is “the heart and core of the gospel” and that consequently, “great care must be taken in teaching this doctrine lest one wind up declaring ‘another gospel’ which actually is not a gospel at all.”[22]

Noted Scottish theologian, Donald MacLeod has recently written, “According to Wright, justification means God’s declaration that we are members of the covenant community. He accepts that in making this declaration God’s only requirement is faith, but rejects old Protestant views that the value of faith lies in the fact that it unites us to Christ and thus makes us partakers of His righteousness. Instead, according to Wright, God takes faith as a sign that the Spirit is already at work in us and that we are already members of the covenant people. It demonstrates that we have a new, penitent heart; and God, seeing saving grace already at work, justifies us… For all its laboured originality, this theory completely fails to escape the gravitational pull of the religion of self-justification. Wright’s basic thrust is that justification is no legal fiction: the believer is righteous. This righteousness may be the result of grace and of the Spirit’s work within us, but when all is said and done it is our own personal righteousness. It is inherent, not imputed. We are asked to stand on the rock of our own covenant keeping. Could that have given Martin Luther peace? Could it give any of us peace? On the contrary, our hope would ebb and flow with every rise and fall in the tide of our personal spirituality.”[23]



[1] Bibliographic documentation for the representative writings will be found in the endnotes of the previous installments in this series.


[2] Wright calls the notion of imputation “pious fiction” and has no place for it in his understanding of justification. Norman Shepherd wrote two chapters, “Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology,” and “Justification by works in Reformed Theology.” In the book Backbone of the Bible: Covenant In Contemporary Perspective ed. P. A. Sandlin (Covenant Media Press, 2004), and makes explicit what he had earlier only implied, namely, his rejection of the active obedience of Christ as a grounds of justification. For Shepherd it is merely Christ’s passive suffering on the cross that is the grounds for justification. Shepherd’s assertion in his earlier work, The Call of Grace (P&R, 2000), that perfect obedience has never been a condition of obtaining eternal life logically leads to a denial of our need for Christ’s active obedience. If perfect obedience to God’s law has never been necessary for justification, then Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s law was not necessary for our justification. It also follows that getting rid of the idea that perfect obedience is necessary for our justification makes room for the idea that imperfect obedience can be constitutive for our justification. Shepherd admits that if he grants that Christ’s active law keeping is imputed to us in justification, then he cannot say that our sanctified law keeping is necessary for our justification. Long ago The Dutch Puritan, Wilhelmus Brakel argued that, “whoever denies the existence of the covenant of works, … will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect.” See The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1, translated by Bartel Elshout (Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1992), p. 355. For a extensive analysis of Shepherd’s position, cf. Report of The Special Committee To Study Justification In Light of The Current Justification Controversy, presented to the 258th Synod of The Reformed Church of The United States May 10-13, 2004.


[3] Wright makes this point repeatedly in his writings, cf. his What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 113, and his “Commentary on Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible X (Abington, 2002), p. 520.


[4] J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (rpt. Eerdmans, 1947), p. 177.


[5] George Grant, “Books: Revisiting the Apostle” World Magazine (Nov. 1, 1997).


[6] “A Pauline Take on The New Perspective” Credenda/Agenda (Vol. 15, No. 5, 2004).


[7] Doug Wilson “N. T. Wright and All That,” Credenda/Agenda 13/3 (2002), p. 10. Ligon Duncan (who will be one of our speakers at PCRT this year) writing in reference to Wilson and his associates makes this candid observation, “There are evangelicals who are social conservatives but who are bent on Christianity expressing itself societally. Among these are theonomists, reconstructionists, ex-theonomists and reconstructionists: and other miscreants. It is amazing how quick they are to discard Reformational Soteriological teaching in order to advance their neo-sacerdotalism, kingdom ecclesiology/eschatology, and dreams of Christendom. There is, by the way, a logical and theological connection between their desire to promote an eccentric continuitarian approach to hermeneutics (basically, they have a “flat” view of Old Covenant and New in the progress of redemption) and their attraction to certain aspects of the NPP (with its more rationalistic approach to New Testament exegesis that expects to find, via a “history of religions approach to the NT,” that there are few ideas in the NT without inter-testamental precursors).” The Attractions of The New Perspective(s)on Paul available at the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, www.AllianceNet.org.


[8] P. Enns, review of two of Wright’s books in The Westminster Theological Journal (58/2, 1996), p. 328.


[9] The major features of this introduction were distilled from J. V. Fesko “The New Perspective on Paul Calvin and N. T. Wright” Fesko, is an OPC pastor and visiting prof. of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. This article can be found online at PCANews.com.


[10] J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary II (Baker, 1992), p. 507.


[11] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to The Romans I (T&T Clark, 1975), p. 261.


[12] Ibid. p. 265.


[13] Ibid. p. 265.


[14] W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to The Romans I (T&T Clark, 1902), p. 119.


[15] Cf. B. B. Warfield’s critical analysis of the Higher Life teachings in his two volume “Perfectionism” Works VII and VIII (rpt. Baker, 1982).


[16] The exegetical observations are those of my late prof. of Theology, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. and are from his unpublished lectures on Romans. I served as Dr. Johnson’s teaching assistant at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1984-85.


[17] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p.129.


[18] The most recent issue of Credenda/Agenda carried an ad “Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches: Presbytery Examination of Douglas Wilson” available on CD in whichWilson is unanimously affirmed as being orthodox by his denomination. The fact that this was done indicates that where there is smoke there is fire.


[19] Credenda/Agenda (Vol. 15, No. 5, 2004).


[20] J. Ligon Duncan, “More Concerns About N. T. Wright and the New Perspective(s)” PCANews.com.


[21] F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology II (rpt. P&R, 1994), p. 633.


[22] R. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 740.


[23] D. MacLeod A Faith to Live By (Mentor Books, 2002), p. 166-67.

The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary (Galatians)

The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament is not meant to be an academic or highly technical series. There are many helpful exegetical commentaries written for that purpose. Rather, the aim is to provide lectio continua sermons which clearly and faithfully communicate the context, meaning, gravity and application of God’s inerrant Word. Each volume of expositions aspires to be redemptive-historical, covenantal, Reformed and confessional, trinitarian, person-and-work-of-Christ-centered, and teeming with practical application. Therefore, the series will be a profound blessing to every Christian believer who longs to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

–from the Series Introduction by Dr. Jon D. Payne

Also available on Kindle and Nook.


214 pages

ISBN: 978-0-9831457-7-6

For more information on the Lectio Continua New Testament Commentary, please visit http://lectiocontinua.com.


“The book of Galatians is a crystal vial containing the sweet medicine of salvation in Christ alone. Fesko opens the vial and pours out the healing doctrines of justification by faith alone and sanctification by grace alone. His simple, expository style will connect with ordinary people. Yet he helps us to do biblical theology, uncovering the Old Testament roots of the gospel. He guides us in systematic theology, distilling clear doctrinal statements from the Scriptures with the insights of great theologians of the past. And his commentary is practical, leading the reader in this present evil age to live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself up for us. Read Galatians and read this book—and then walk by faith in Christ alone.”

–Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan

“There are so many fine commentaries available today. However, it’s great to have a reliable author you can turn to for solid Reformed reflection on Scripture. In this case, there are sixteen of them—friends and fellow shepherds who have given me great insight into God’s Word over the years. I’m looking forward eagerly to Fesko’s Galatians commentary—and to each one after that!”

– Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology atWestminster Seminary California
, Host of the White Horse Inn, 
Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation Magazine

“Those of us who have promoted and practiced Lectio Continua expository preaching through the years eagerly await the volumes Tolle Lege Press has announced in its Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament. We are equally eager to read such a series written by pastors who have practiced the method in their churches. The international and interdenominational character of the series will only add to the richness of its insights.”

– Dr. T. David Gordon, Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College
 Author of “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” (P&R, 2009)

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