The modern gospel is the product of an excessive theological preoccupation with the salvation of the individual. It has led generally to the eclipse of scripture as historical narrative—see part 1 and part 2 of this review. But Dan Phillips’ book also illustrates another problem that arises when the defence of dogmatic tradition is elevated above biblical interpretation: Paul’s argumentation gets bent out of shape.
Justification needs straightening out
Not surprisingly The World-Tilting Gospel includes a staunch defence of the doctrine of justification. The debate is obviously a complex one, but to my mind two issues stand out.
The first issue is that there seems to me to be some confusion in this chapter between the reckoning (logizomai) of righteousness and the crediting of righteousness. Phillips makes the point, rightly, that justification is not about making someone righteous but about declaring someone to be righteous; but at the same time he speaks of a “great transfer” or crediting of righteousness from one person’s account to another’s—that is, Christ’s righteousness is transferred to the undeserving believer.
Faith, then, is not a human work. Faith is the God-ordained instrument of receiving the gift of perfect righteousness, credited to our accounts before God. Through faith alone, God considers us as righteous.
On what basis? How can God regard the guilty as righteous? We have already seen it: because of Jesus Christ fulfilling all righteousness, then standing in our stead to receive the wrathful justice due our sins. Our sins are debited to Him; His righteousness is credited to us. (144)
Reformed theology gets itself in a mess over this issue because it feels obligated to insist on the complete depravity of humanity and to ascribe absolutely everything to do with salvation—including faith—to God. But in such an extreme state of theological anxiety it is very easy to miss the whole point of what Paul is saying in Romans 4 and elsewhere.
What he says in Romans 4 is really very simple: it is that people are counted as righteous because they believe or trust or have faith. That’s pretty much all there is to it.
Phillips lists a number of places where logizomai is used and says, “These verses speak of the imputation of righteousness through faith alone, apart from works”; and he asserts that imputation means the crediting of an amount to a person’s account (142-43).
But this is misleading. Romans 4:11, admittedly, speaks of righteousness being reckoned to the uncircumcised, but this is really just another way of making the more fundamental point, which is that “faith is counted as righteousness” (4:5, 22). Faith is reckoned to them as righteousness, therefore righteousness is reckoned to them. The basic paradigm is given in the story about Abraham. Abraham did not work, he believed, who had pistis—in fact, he believed the promise that he would have descendants. That act of belief, which is something that Abraham did, was reckoned or counted to him as righteousness. It was the right thing to do. There is no suggestion that righteousness is a commodity that has to be transferred from one account to another.
Similarly, in Philippians 3:8-9 Paul repudiates any justification that might come through obedience to the Law and expresses his desire to be counted righteous on the basis of his trust in Jesus, which means concretely to share in his eschatological sufferings and death in the hope of attaining the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11).
The second, and more general issue, has to do with how Paul’s argument about justification is framed—and once we grasp this, it should be much easier to understand the first point. Paul never simply addresses the question of how sinful humanity is to be justified before a holy God, in the way that the Reformers imagined. The question always has to do with how Israel is to be justified under the prevailing eschatological conditions, which are historical conditions. This certainly has profound implications for humanity, but it is misleading to short-circuit the argument, by-passing the critical narrative structure that connects the death of Jesus with the general state of humanity.
Paul’s argument to Israel is that in the face of the impending wrath of God Torah-observance simply won’t cut it—in fact, the Law now condemns a persistently rebellious people. So how will anyone survive the coming catastrophe? The answer is found initially in Habakkuk 2:4 (cf. Rom. 1:17) and developed at length in Romans 4: those who exercise concrete trust in the story of Jesus—that is, in the precedent of his death and resurrection—will be reckoned as righteous, they will live. This is not an abstract argument about personal salvation, which is what Reformed theology has made of it. It is a historical argument about the future of a people facing eschatological crisis.
This eschatological reading of Romans is developed at greater length—and I hope more cogently—in The Future of the People of God, but see also “The historical justification of the people of God by faithfulness”. I also strongly recommend reading the exchange between John Piper and Tom Wright about justification.
Next: Don’t forget to feed the fish…