That UCCF Revise Its Article on Justification

It’s clear to me that the Doctrinal Basis of UCCF, which oversees Christian Unions all over Britain, is broadly Reformed in character. This ethos is, I think, a strength rather than a weakness, to express the truth robustly without being sectarian, to maintain a substantial and coherent theological core while also being comprehensive of diversity among evangelical Christians. One should desire, for a doctrinal statement, neither a wax nose nor a curious prying into the hidden decrees of God.

This is exactly why I find room for improvement in the UCCF Doctrinal Basis as it now stands. The document speaks of justification as follows, in Article G:

Those who believe in Christ are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God’s sight only because of the righteousness of Christ credited to them; this justification is God’s act of undeserved mercy, received solely by trust in him and not by [believers’] own efforts.

To say the sole premise for pardon of sin and acceptance before God is the righteousness of Christ credited to believers is, because of what credit means, to frame the doctrine of justification in terms of God’s ascribing to believers the active obedience of Christ’s earthly life. Must the Doctrinal Basis insist on this double imputation? There are, after all, other Reformed formulations of imputation. The Reformed have not received as dogma the imputation of Christ’s active obedience: of the confessions, not even Westminster requires it, and multiple Reformed theologians on the continent explicitly rejected its inclusion in the doctrine of justification.[1]

It seems unduly narrow, therefore, to press in the Doctrinal Basis the idea that the righteousness of Christ is credited (i.e. transferred?) to believers, especially if that position is one that many of the Reformed divines have rejected.[2] What all agree on is that the merits of Christ himself, external to us sinners, are the grounds on which God shows mercy to those who believe in him. Upon this agreement I propose a revision to the phrase in question, more comprehensive without departing from the Reformed tradition: the alien righteousness found in the person of Jesus Christ.

The revised proposition would implicitly cast justification in terms of union with Christ by faith, the thing emphasized by Calvin as the fountainhead of both justification and sanctification, and avoids unsound ideas of exact pecuniary transaction in favour of the biblical concept of the Second Adam.[3] Thus it would hew to what Scripture actually teaches and promote the peace of the Church without, as I believe the current proposition does, forcing some to ignore legitimate dissent within the tradition. Such is my evaluation; perhaps there are sound reasons for judging otherwise.

Notes

[1] If we consider it important to include in the Doctrinal Basis some theology of Christ’s active obedience, I think we must expressly recognize it as embedded in a broader theme of reconciliation that exceeds forgiveness, the Second Adam theme that ties together the atonement with the positive obedience that invariably comes forth, however imperfectly on this earth, as the fruit of faith in Christ. This treatment of active obedience, however, to preserve the distinction between justification and sanctification, would likely require an additional article in the Doctrinal Basis, not an expansion of the article on justification.

[2] In addition, those who object to the notion of imputation as transfer of sin and transfer of merit include A. A. HodgeJames Richards and John Smalley

[3] The place of union with the Second Adam in imputation, as a living principle and not a legal fiction, is fruitfully explored by John Nevin. As Nevin describes it, imputation by union with Christ is inherently connected to infusion of the virtue – that is, the power – of Christ’s humanity itself. Cf. John Davenant in A Treatise on Justification: ‘From all these considerations [of how Naclantus, Bishop of Chioggia, speaks of the righteousness of faith], it is evident, that this truly learned man refers to the virtue of justifying, not to habitual grace, or the righteousness which inheres in us; but, as he himself speaks, to sacramental grace, namely, to that of which we participate by faith, in baptism, when, being incorporated into our Mediator, we are made partakers of his death and obedience.’ 

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2 responses to “That UCCF Revise Its Article on Justification

  1. So, are you saying that you believe only the passive obedience is ascribed to believers? Presbyterians are taught the double imputation. In seminaries, we are taught maybe briefly that some believe only the passive obedience is credited to Christians.

    The double imputation is taught because it provides rest to the Christian who knows that Christ has fulfilled actively the right obedience to the Law.

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    • I believe the perfection of Christ, as embodied in his active obedience, is essential to justification. The formal cause of justification is Christ’s righteousness imputed, not an inherent righteousness infused, because no infused righteousness has perfectly overcome the evil in man. Without the merits of Christ, therefore, which fulfil our human duty, no one can stand before God. Beyond statements like this I’m reluctant to go.

      Regardless of my own views, however, I object to including in a confessional document any language that implies the transfer of this active obedience, since it unnecessarily excludes the views of many people who are legitimately Reformed. According to Baxter, those who assert Christ’s passive obedience as the sole (direct) ground of our justification include Olevian, Ursinus, Paraeus, Scultetus, Piscator, Alstedius, Wendeline and Beckman among the Germans, as well as John Cameron and his French divines, Lubbertus, Forbes, Wotton, and Gataker. To avoid excluding these views is especially important for such a broad organization as UCCF, whose position ought to be no narrower than the existing Reformed confessions, so as not to condemn mainstream Reformed positions.

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