The Critical Ingredient Missing from Richard B. Gaffin Jr.'s Soteriology

November 2015

The Critical Ingredient Missing from Richard B. Gaffin Jr.'s Soteriology

A response to Lee Irons’s blog review[1] ofThe Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification[2]

Written by Stephen M. Cunha on September 13, 2015

Lee Irons attempts to dismiss my critique, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification, by suggesting that it originated from a tendentious source and by claiming that it does not take into account a change that he alleges took place in Gaffin’s thought around 2006.  I do appreciate the fact that Irons took the time to read and review my work.  Though I think we would differ in our understanding of the role of the moral law in the life of a believer, I read a few years ago, and appreciated, his essay, “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology,” in the Festschrift that was published in honor of Meredith Kline.[3]

Irons states that he reviews my book with “several misgivings and concerns.”  He cautions that the publisher, The Trinity Foundation, “is not an objective source” and is known to be “extremely critical of Van Til, the OPC, and Dr. Gaffin – pretty much writing all of them off as heretics who deny the Gospel.”  This method of dismissing works published by The Trinity Foundation has been a common one in Reformed circles.  A professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) once dismissed works published by The Trinity Foundation over breakfast by telling me that they had an “axe to grind” against Van Til.  While it is true that The Trinity Foundation itself has some distinctive views, which is hardly uncommon for any organization, it is patently false that The Trinity Foundation only publishes works written by men who are in complete alignment with all of its distinctive views.  Mark Karlberg, for example, has been published more than once by The Trinity Foundation, yet has written favorably about both Cornelius Van Til and Geerhardus Vos.  There does not appear to be a trace of influence from Gordon Clark in any of Karlberg’s writings.  To give another example, O. Palmer Robertson’s book, The Current Justification Controversy,[4] was also published by the Trinity Foundation.  Incidentally, Irons gives a review of this book immediately after the review of my book.  It is interesting to this author that Irons does not express the same misgivings or concerns about the objectivity of the publisher in his very positive review of Robertson’s book.  Since the review of my book was published immediately before the review of Robertson’s book, perhaps the caution given about The Trinity Foundation with regard to my book was also intended to apply to Robertson’s book.

Irons has misgivings about the publisher’s rhetoric and the title of the book.  I cannot speak to the language used by the publisher to advertise the book because it did not come from me.  With regard to the title, which, along with the content of the book itself, did come from me, I would refer Irons to the explanation provided in the Preface of the book since he seems to have missed this. 

Irons says that since Gaffin became Emeritus Professor at WTS in 2008 (the year my book was originally published), “it seems a little harsh to go after a man now that he has retired and is trying to serve the church in quieter ways.”  To begin with, it is surprising to me that Irons does not appear to understand that a critique of a man’s theology is not the same thing as “going after” a man personally.  Prior to reaching the conclusion that Gaffin’s theology and influence were a danger to the church, I personally knew and, more importantly, liked the man.  We shared in the camaraderie of our church softball team and enjoyed being a part of winning more than one league championship.  My critique was not going after the man personally, but after his teaching on a doctrine that I believe is at the heart of the Gospel. 

One (false) reason that has been proffered to account for Gaffin’s support of Norman Shepherd throughout The Shepherd Controversy at WTS is their personal friendship.  The line of thought is that Gaffin, out of regard to their personal friendship, wanted to give Shepherd’s supposed “ambiguity” the benefit of the doubt throughout the controversy with the implication that such loyalty is praiseworthy, albeit mistaken.  The controversy began because Shepherd was explicitly teaching WTS students (in the classroom) that good works are co-instrumental with faith in securing justification before God.  At the beginning of the controversy, Shepherd also affirmed to fellow faculty members that, “as faith was the instrument of justification, so also works were the instrument of justification.”[5] Such teaching can hardly be called ambiguous.  If it were true that Gaffin defended Shepherd throughout the controversy out of a sense of personal loyalty, I do not agree that such behavior should be considered noble or praiseworthy.  Jesus says in Matthew 10:37, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”[6] I believe that being unwilling to oppose false teaching out of regard to personal friendship or esteem, especially when the teaching touches on how someone can be saved from eternal punishment and obtain a title to eternal life in Heaven, is akin to loving one’s father, mother, son, or daughter more than Jesus. 

As a side note, R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California (WSC) provided what I believe is a more accurate account of Gaffin’s role in The Shepherd Controversy when he wrote the following on a now defunct blog:

“I have the original Shepherd controversy documents and Dick (Gaffin) was defending a complex instrument of justification, i.e. faith and works on paper and in faculty discussions.  Dick defended not only Shepherd’s right to hold his views but the substance of his views.”[7]

It is not clear why Irons thinks Gaffin’s retirement from full-time teaching at WTS means that he is “serving the church in quieter ways” and, therefore, should not be critiqued.  Does Irons not understand that Gaffin’s written work and publicly expressed thought, not to mention personal influence at multiple seminaries, continue to influence the church?  Is he unaware that Gaffin’s public teaching did not cease when he retired from full-time teaching at WTS?  Since retirement from full-time teaching at WTS, Gaffin has traveled as far as Hong Kong to publicly promote his theology and his presence in social media has expanded.  The only thing that I would agree can be said to be “quieter” is Gaffin’s voice within the classrooms of WTS.  My critique of Gaffin’s theology was offered to address a context that is much broader than his teaching position at WTS.

Irons says he does not like the tone of my book.  This is interesting to me because, overwhelmingly, I received the exact opposite feedback from multiple sources after the critique was originally published.  As an example of what he considers to be harsh or intemperate rhetoric, Irons cites a statement in my book that Gaffin’s teaching “crosses the line of Reformed orthodoxy and communicates a gospel that is different from the Gospel of God revealed to us in Scripture.”  It is not clear to me how this assertion can be construed as either harsh or intemperate.  It does not contain any invective.  It is simply a statement that is either true or false. 

If Irons doesn’t like the tone of my book, I wonder if his sensibility makes it difficult for him to read the works of Reformers like Calvin, Luther, and Knox.  Would he, for example, be offended by the following words from a sermon by Calvin on the Epistle to the Galatians?

In these days the Pope and all his, are too openly proved to have falsified and corrupted the doctrine of the Gospel, and that the thing which they term the service of God, is nothing but stark abomination:  and moreover, that there is nothing among them, but outrageous lies and falsehoods, yea and enchantments of Satan.  All this is known well enough.  But behold, their shield wherewith they cast the mist that covereth all their filthiness, is that there hath been a continual succession, ever since the time of the Apostles, and that they represent them and are the Church, and therefore that whatsoever they put forth must be taken for good.[8]

Does Irons have any misgivings about the words of the apostle Paul when he writes, at the beginning of the third chapter of Galatians, “O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you that you don’t obey the truth?”[9]

It may surprise Irons to know that Arthur Kuschke, one of the men he commends in his review of Robertson’s book, and someone Alan Strange aptly described as “well mannered” and “a true gentleman,”[10] read and agreed with my critique.  He also expressed his appreciation for the way in which it was written.  I did not know Kuschke personally when he first read the critique.  He made a point of reaching out to me (initially by letter) after reading the work, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know him a little bit before he passed away.  Kuschke did not evidence any sign of animus against Gaffin, but knew his theology was a problem.  Kuschke, by the way, was no anti-Vantillian. 

I do not appreciate the implication by Irons that The Emperor Has No Clothes does not take into account works published by Gaffin in 2006 and 2007.  Not only was I fully aware of these published works, along with the OPC Report on justification, prior to writing the critique, something I read toward the end of Gaffin’s book, By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation[11] (published in 2006) was the impetus for taking the step of putting my thoughts down on paper.  Of course, Irons had no way of knowing this fact.  However, he absolutely should have known that principle evidence cited in the critique is drawn from the very works by Gaffin that Irons claims demonstrate a change in thought.  One does not even need to read The Emperor Has No Clothes to discern this fact.  A short Internet search for other reviews of the book will show that quotations are drawn from Gaffin’s work in 2006 and 2007.  On a conservative counting, over 35% of the footnotes in The Emperor Has No Clothes pertain directly or indirectly to what I consider to be problematic statements found in By Faith, Not By Sight and Justified in Christ: God’s Plan For Us In Justification[12] (published in 2007).  My critique even contains a reference to the OPC Report on Justification. 

Did Irons, who holds a Master’s degree from WSC and a Doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary, not take the time to read the footnotes in The Emperor Has NoClothes?  More importantly, how could he miss the direct mention of both By Faith, NotBy Sight and Justified in Christ in the body of the critique?  He is welcome to offer arguments against the substance of the critique itself, but to imply that the critique does not take into account Gaffin’s work in 2006 and 2007 is, regardless of the reason, inexcusable.  Careful attention to detail should, in my judgment, be one of the hallmarks of good scholarship.

I am encouraged that Irons agrees “100%” with my “formulation of the doctrine of justification and the proper relationship of faith and works” and by the fact that Irons at least acknowledges the necessity of what he terms a “post-2006” Gaffin, even though I believe his “post-2006” Gaffin is a figment of someone’s imagination.   

Now to the meat of why I am taking the time to respond to this blog review.  Contrary to the notion, advanced by Irons, that a substantive change in Gaffin’s understanding of the doctrine of justification took place around 2006, I believe Gaffin’s recent work demonstrates a fundamental continuity of thought, albeit with minor cosmetic changes, over the past approximately 50 years.  Irons seems to imply in his review of The Emperor Has No Clothes that a proper understanding of what he terms “the law-gospel contrast” is not essential to a Biblical, orthodox teaching on the doctrine of justification.  Instead, Irons relegates dispute on that topic to the status of “in-house Reformed debate.”  Perhaps this is one reason why Irons neglects to mention that principal evidence cited in my critique, including what amounts to an explicit denial of the absolute contrast between the Law and the Gospel,[13] is drawn from Gaffin’s more recent work.  Irrespective of whether or not Irons means what he seems to imply (and I personally don’t believe that he does – he strikes me as someone who has the Gospel right and cares deeply about defending it), what he terms “the law-gospel contrast” is absolutely essential to a Biblical, orthodox teaching on the doctrine of justification.

The core problem with Gaffin’s teaching is that he wants to make works of evangelical obedience in some sense effectual in the believer’s justification.  Like Norman Shepherd, Gaffin will affirm that works of evangelical obedience are evidential with respect to justification, but also wants to say something more than this.  Neither man has been willing to affirm, without qualification, that works of evangelical obedience are solely or purely evidential with respect to justification.

Since an absolute contrast or antithesis between the Law and the Gospel is integral to a proper explication of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, another way to state the core problem is that Gaffin’s theological system will not allow and does not have room for, and indeed rejects, an absolute Law/Gospel antithesis with respect to justification.

What is meant by the Law/Gospel antithesis?  The Bible teaches that there are only two, mutually exclusive ways to obtain an irrevocable legal status before the Supreme Governor and Judge of the Universe that entitles a person to the reward of eternal life in Heaven, a place of unadulterated joy, happiness, and fulfillment, when he or she leaves this world.  A person can obtain this legal status, called justification, by obeying God’s Law perfectly throughout the course of the person’s life or by believing in Jesus Christ so that the perfect life of obedience Jesus (who is fully God and fully man) lived under the law and his sacrificial, propitiatory death on the cross to pay fully for the sins of anyone who believes in Jesus, which taken together constitute what the Bible calls “the righteousness of (or from) God,” are credited to the person’s account. 

Justification is, according to the Bible, either by faith or by our own works.  There is no middle ground.  It can either be obtained exclusively on the basis of what we do or exclusively on the basis of what Jesus has done.  The Bible teaches that we can only be successful in obtaining justification on the basis of what we do if we live through the entire course of our life perfectly obeying God’s Law, summed up by the Ten Commandments, in our behavior and from the heart.  Because the God of the Universe is infinitely holy, he cannot tolerate any sin.  “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13).  The smallest transgression of God’s Law disqualifies a person from having any chance of obtaining justification through his or her own works and efforts.  The smallest transgression of the Law brings a person under God’s condemnation, and, if the person leaves this world without appropriating the perfect, all-sufficient righteousness of Jesus Christ through faith, will consign the person to an existence of continual, unspeakable pain and suffering in Hell, as punishment for sin, for all eternity. 

Because the Apostle Paul knew that no mere man, since the fall of our first parents, is able to perfectly obey the Law of God, he says in Romans 3 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  In Galatians 3, Paul writes, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’”  If someone wants to obtain eternal life in Heaven based on his or her own effort, he or she must continue to do everything (literally, from the original Greek, “continue in all things”) written in God’s Law.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism correctly affirms “no mere man, since the fall, is able to perfectly keep the Commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.”

The attempt to be justified by our own works and moral record is the “Law” way in the Law/Gospel antithesis.  The word “Law” is used in multiple ways in Scripture.  In the context of discussing the Law/Gospel antithesis with respect to justification, it exclusively means a Covenant of Works or Covenant of Life.  This means that God promises to grant eternal life on the basis of a perfect, flawless moral record worked out through a probationary period.  It also includes a warning or threat that the smallest deviation from God’s moral standard during this probationary period will bring a person under condemnation.

It is alarming news for many when they learn that perfection throughout the course of one’s life is required in order to go to Heaven, and that if a person has already failed to be morally perfect that person already has a “guilty” status before the Judge of the Universe.  However, it should be good news (the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”) for people who have failed to perfectly keep the moral law of God to learn that there is another way to inherit eternal life.  Paul shares this good news with the following words in Romans 3:21-24:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.

Obtaining justification through faith in Jesus Christ is the “Gospel” way in the Law/Gospel antithesis.  By its nature, this justifying faith trusts exclusively in the work of another, Jesus Christ, for legal acceptance before the Judge of the Universe.  By faith, a person submits to relying solely on the righteousness of God for the legal status that entitles him or her to eternal life in Heaven.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a good definition of faith when it says “faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive, and rest upon him alone for Salvation, as he is offered to us in the Gospel.”  Faith is repeatedly set over and against all works in the Apostle Paul’s explication of the Gospel in Romans and Galatians.  We receive the righteousness of Christ, which is the basis of our justification, by faith alone, apart from all works.

The Epistle of James says that faith without works is dead, but this does not mean that faith somehow needs to be accompanied with good works in order to be complete.  It means that where true saving faith exists, good works will follow in the believer’s life.  Faith itself does not properly produce good works, but the believer produces good works through faith.  If someone claims to have faith, but does not over time produce good works, James says that person’s faith is not genuine, but spurious.  However, true justifying faith does not require works of evangelical obedience to make it complete and effectual as the alone instrument to receive the righteousness of God, imputed to the person’s account, for justification.  True justifying faith is an entity complete and distinct from the good works that are produced through it.  James teaches that good works are evidential of true justifying faith and, therefore, of justification.  Paul and James are misunderstood if they are taken together as teaching that good works are in any way effectual in a believer’s justification.  I would imagine that it was not without good reason that the men who drafted the Westminster Standards took care to call faith “the alone instrument” in justification.  This statement helps guard against those who would verbally affirm that good works are not the basis of a believer’s justification while at the same time maintaining that they are effectual in receiving justification.

The Law/Gospel antithesis means that a person can be justified either by a perfect life of obedience as the basis or by faith as the alone instrument (in which case, Jesus’ death on the cross and perfect life of obedience are the basis).  If any works, including works of evangelical obedience that are produced through faith, are added to the Gospel side of the antithesis in a way that is beyond being purely evidential, the Law/Gospel antithesis collapses.  God glorifies His grace (which I take to mean favor bestowed on someone who has merited or deserved the exact opposite) through the Gospel.  Romans 4:16 says, “the (Gospel) promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.”  If good works are added to faith on the Gospel side of the antithesis in a way that is beyond solely evidential, the Gospel is compromised and the glory of God’s grace is undermined.  The Bible teaches this Law/Gospel antithesis, and it is essential to the true Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

Without an underlying contrast between the Law and the Gospel with respect to securing complete, irrevocable legal acceptance before God, it is possible to utter the words “justification is by faith alone,” as Norman Shepherd did during the controversy that took place at WTS, and still hold to a teaching that undermines the Biblical doctrine of justification.  One memory I have of a visit to Universal Studios in California as a child was walking through the neighborhood used for a number of television shows, including Leave It To Beaver.  It was interesting (and, for me, a little disappointing) to observe during that tour that many of the “houses” in the neighborhood were only elaborate façades supported by scaffolding in the rear.  Just as the front face to a house, standing alone and by itself, does not constitute a house, so also there is no doctrine of justification without the Law/Gospel antithesis.

When there is no absolute Law/Gospel contrast with respect to justification, works of evangelical obedience must, along with faith, play some causal role in justification.  In short, when the Law/Gospel antithesis is absent, justification must be by faith and, in some sense,by works.  The Emperor Has No Clothes addresses what I consider to be problematic statements found in the first edition of Gaffin’s book By Faith, No By Sight and repeated in an essay by Gaffin contained in the book Justified in Christ.  Portions of these statements, which are quoted at length in the book, along with excerpts of my interaction with them, can be found embedded in reviews available on the Internet.  Here are three examples of how the Law/Gospel antithesis is compromised by contemporary writers and theologians who have had some association with Gaffin.

Moisés Silva, a former colleague of Gaffin’s at WTS compromises the Law/Gospel antithesis in his book Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method[14] when he suggests that the definition of the word typically translated “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4, a verse cited by the Apostle Paul more than once in the New Testament to explicate the Law/Gospel contrast with respect to justification, includes “a whole life of persevering in obedience.”  Silva writes on page 167 of the book:

In other words, for Habakkuk there was no such dichotomy between faith and faithfulness as we often assume (similarly, the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes their connection, cf. Heb. 3-4).  That the apostle Paul did not view justifying faith as excluding obedience to God’s commandments is suggested in Galatians itself (see esp. Gal. 5:13-26), but the organic link between these two concepts is extensively developed in Romans.

The latter portion of Habakkuk 2:4 reads, “the righteous will live by faith.”  Paul cites these words in Romans 1:16, 17 when he says:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The same words from Habakkuk are cited by Paul in Galatians 3:10-12:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”  Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”  The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.”

Acceptance of Silva’s teaching that “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4 comprehends faithfulness or a life of persevering in obedience to God’s commandments would lead to an interpretation of Romans 1:16, 17 and Galatians 3:10-13 that makes works of evangelical obedience, or works produced through faith, in some way effectual in justification.  Silva appears to have more in common with Cardinal Sadoleto than with John Calvin.

Contrary to Silva, “faith” in Romans 1:16, 17 and Galatians 3:10-12 is exclusively belief and trust in Jesus Christ alone and what he accomplished in his perfect life of obedience under the law and atoning, propitiating death on the cross for sin, for justification before the Supreme Governor and Judge of the Universe.  We are justified by faith alone, apart from all works.  Paul says the following in Romans 4:1-5:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather discovered in this matter?  If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.  What does the Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

The foreword to the recently published second edition of Gaffin’s By Faith, Not By Sight[15] is written by Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor Mark Jones and is, unfortunately, fully consistent with the understanding that there has been no positive change in Gaffin’s teaching on justification.  The selection of Jones to write the foreword, a man who has on more than one occasion publicly suggested that works of evangelical obedience have some efficacy in justification, is itself noteworthy.  Jones gushes at the beginning of the foreword that “It is a unique privilege and a remarkable providence to write a foreword for a book that has been so deeply influential in my own theological thinking.”  He then attempts to defend Gaffin’s views on soteriology, and especially justification, largely on the basis of historical theology.  The fact that Jones sees a need to defend Gaffin’s views on soteriology may also be noteworthy.  Why does doctrinal teaching that is clearly within the bounds of orthodoxy require such a historical theological defense?

Roughly midway through the defense, Jones says that Reformed theologian Peter Van Mastricht (1630-1706) taught that there are three stages of justification and that in the third and final stage “in which believers gain possession of eternal life, good works have a certain ‘efficacy,’ insofar as God will not grant possession of eternal life unless they are present.”[16] Jones goes on to say that, based on what he discerns to be a shared view on Paul’s teaching in the first half of the second chapter of Romans, both Gaffin and Van Mastricht “hold firmly to the Reformed view that good works are a necessary condition (consequent, not antecedent, to faith) for salvation.”[17] When I first read this last statement, I was struck by Jones’s sudden shift from the word “justification” to the word “salvation” at this place.  The word “salvation” can be used to denote something broader than the word “justification” (e.g. encompassing sanctification and glorification), but, based on the context, is clearly being used here as an equivalent term for justification.  Is it possible that Jones is uncomfortable articulating his point too explicitly?  Perhaps I am reading too much into the sudden shift in terminology, but it appears that Jones did not want to say that both Gaffin and Van Mastricht “hold firmly to the Reformed view that good works are a necessary condition (consequent, not antecedent, to faith) for justification” even though that is precisely his meaning.

Jones suggests, approvingly (at least in his foreword to By Faith, Not By Sight), that both Van Mastricht and Gaffin stretch justification out into multiple stages and that good works are in some way efficacious in the final stage.[18] Such a scheme violates the antithesis between works (Law) and faith (Gospel) with respect to justification.  Though Jones has demonstrated that he can utter the words “justification is by faith alone,” there appears to be no absolute Law/Gospel contrast behind that façade.  This is, of course, entirely consistent with the explicit denial of the Law/Gospel contrast expressed by Gaffin in By Faith, Not By Sight.  As indicated above, the Westminster Standards correctly, on the basis of Scripture, refer to faith as the alone instrument of justification.  It is, in my judgment, incumbent upon Jones to explain exactly in what sense he believes works to be efficacious with respect to justification.  For example, are they, in his view, co-instrumental in or the partial basis or ground of justification?    

Mark Garcia, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) who dedicated his first book, which was based on his doctoral dissertation, to his wife and Gaffin (due in part to the influence Gaffin has had on his thinking[19]), compromises the Law/Gospel contrast by limiting its applicability to the meritorious ground of justification.  This leaves the door open for so-called “non-meritorious” works to be in some way effectual in justification.  Garcia says the following in Volume 10 of The Confessional Presbyterian:

The clear distinction between “law” and “gospel,” properly understood and explained, renders a valuable, necessary service to the Church.  In its most faithful deployment, this distinction eliminates any works of the sinner from the ground of justification before God, and ascribes all meritorious obedience to Christ alone.  The law always was, in and of itself, powerless to change the heart of the sinner.  Given the Fall, the law could only point out the way of faithfulness and provoke a greater sensitivity to the reality of our sin; given the heart of the old man, dead in sin and alienated from God, obedience to God could never simply be legislated.  God’s Word, apart from the Spirit’s work on the heart, could not ipso facto bring about what it declared in the law’s commandments.  In terms of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, it certainly could never form a part of the ground of our justification before him: law (in this sense of our works which cannot earn justification) and gospel (in this sense of Christ’s meritorious work in our stead) are to be distinguished when that important question is in view.  If there is a proper home for the law-gospel distinction, then, it is not only within justification in general but within this one specific area of concern in the doctrine of justification:  the meritorious grounds of one’s justification before God.[20]

It is true that two distinct meritorious grounds are represented in the Law/Gospel contrast, but Garcia’s teaching allows for the believer’s works of evangelical obedience to be added to faith on the Gospel side of the contrast provided that these works are not construed as “meritorious.”  In the foreground of the Biblical teaching is an absolute antithesis between works of obedience (as the ground) and faith (as the alone instrument) with respect to justification.  The addition of evangelical obedience to the Gospel side of the contrast violates the Biblical teaching.  Moreover, I believe the following comments from The Emperor Has No Clothes are applicable.

If the works produced through faith are explicitly or implicitly made to be partially instrumental in the appropriation of justification, the result is a different gospel.  What is the appropriation of justification?  It is the act of receiving Christ and His righteousness as the ground of justification.  Through the laying hold of Christ by faith, it is the act of obtaining title to Jesus’ works as the legal ground of justification.  If works are made to be the partial instrument of justification, would it not follow that a man would be required to obtain title to Jesus’ works as the legal ground of justification in part by the man’s own works?  That is, a man would need to secure legal title to another’s works, performed as the ground of his justification, by his own works, produced through faith as the partial instrument of his justification.  In other words, a man would obtain title to Jesus’ works through his own works.  Does this not practically make a man’s own works the deciding factor in justification?  Yes, it does.  In fact, the distinction between works as instrument and works as ground is effectively meaningless, and a man’s works are practically made to join Jesus’ works as the ground of justification.[21]

It is not possible to have a proper doctrine of justification by faith alone without the Law/Gospel contrast.  Regrettably, this contrast is missing from the theology of Gaffin.  To close, the following quotations are offered as examples of what the articulation of the Law/Gospel contrast looks like in the pen of a theologian.  May the church never allow this critical doctrine to be marginalized or, even worse, extinguished!


“The contradiction between the law and faith lies in the matter of justification.  You will more easily unite fire and water, than reconcile these two statements, that men are justified by faith, and that they are justified by the law.  ‘The law is not of faith;’ that is, it has a method of justifying a man which is wholly at variance with faith.”

                     John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XXI, 90


“The Sophists, who delight in sporting with Scripture and in empty cavils, think they have a subtle evasion when they expound works to mean, such as unregenerate men do literally, and by the effect of free will, without the grace of Christ and deny that these have any reference to spiritual works.  Thus, according to them, man is justified by faith as well as by works, provided that these are not his own works, but gifts of Christ and fruits of regeneration; Paul’s only object in so expressing himself being to convince the Jews, that in trusting to their own strength they foolishly arrogated righteousness to themselves, whereas it is bestowed upon us by the Spirit of Christ alone, and not by studied efforts of our own nature.  But they observe not that in the antithesis between Legal and Gospel righteousness, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all kinds of works, with whatever name adorned, are excluded (Gal. iii.11, 12).  For he says that the righteousness of the law consists in obtaining salvation by doing what the Law requires, but that the righteousness of faith consists in believing that Christ died and rose again (Rom. X. 5-9).  Moreover, we shall afterwards see, at the proper place, that the blessings of sanctification and justification, which we derive from Christ, are different.  Hence it follows, that not even spiritual works are taken into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith.”

                     John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, XI, 14


“The law promiseth life upon condition of works: the Gospel promiseth remission of sins[22] and life everlasting upon condition that we rest ourselves on Christ by faith.”

                     William Perkins, A Commentary On Galatians, 306

“Again the promise is either of the law, or of the Gospel.  The promise of the law, is a promise, which the law propoundeth, having a condition of perfect obedience annexed unto it.  For the law precisely commandeth the condition to be fulfilled, neither otherwise performeth it the promises, then as the condition shall be thoroughly performed.  Therefore the perfect fulfilling of the condition commanded by the law, should have had a respect of merit, and should have been a cause of obtaining those rewards, which the law promiseth.  But the perfect fulfilling of the condition of the law cannot be performed by men corrupted with sin.  The promise of the law, although it hath a condition adjoined impossible to be performed by a corrupted nature: notwithstanding it is not unprofitable or idle: for the impossible condition is therefore adjoined, that men might be admonished of their weakness, and they thoroughly understanding the same might fly to Christ, by whom they being received into grace, and already having obtained justification, might obtain those same promises.  The promise of the Gospel, is a promise which the Gospel propoundeth, having the condition of faith adjoined to it.  For the Gospel promiseth forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, yet to the believers only.  The promise of the Gospel is universal but to the believers:  for all which believe in Christ do receive forgiveness of sins, and eternal life:  Acts. 10:4, John 3:16.”

                     Amandus Polanus, The Substance of Christian Religion, 84-86


“We read of two ways of Justification, by faith and works: but of a third manner by faith and works, both as joint causes or co-causes, we find nothing in Scripture.”

                     John Ball, A Treatise Of The Covenant Of Grace, 69


“Faith and works are the two only ways whereby righteousness may be attained, and they are opposite and inconsistent; so that none doth or can seek after righteousness by them both.  They will not be mixed and made one entire means of attaining righteousness.  They are opposed as grace and works; what is of the one is not of the other, (Romans) chap. xi.6.  Every composition of them in this matter is, ‘Male sarta gratia nequicquam coit et rescinditur.’  And the reason is, because the righteousness which faith seeks after, or which is attainable by faith, is that which is given to us, imputed to us, which faith doth only receive.  It receives ‘the abundance of grace, and the gift of righteousness.’  But that which is attainable by works is our own, inherent in us, wrought out by us, and not imputed unto us; for it is nothing but those works themselves, with respect unto the law of God.  And if righteousness before God be to be obtained alone by faith, and that in contradiction unto all works, —which if a man do them, according unto the law, ‘he shall even live in them,’—then is it by faith alone that we are justified before God, or, nothing else on our part is required thereunto.”

                     John Owen, The Works of John Owen, Volume 5, 340-341


“The whole comes to this, that no faith justifies, but that which is living and fruitful in good works; that acts of love and holiness are required, as fruits of faith, as testimonies of Christ dwelling in us, as marks of our regeneration, as what go before salvation, and without which there can be no full assurance of it.  But that those acts of love, holiness, and conversion concur with faith to justification, and are included in justifying faith, as such, is a strange way of speaking to reformed ears, nor agreeable to [S]cripture, which always, in the matter of justification, sets faith in opposition to all works whatever…. Some time ago I read in Socinus, before the sentiments of this celebrated person came to hand, the same exception which he makes, that, by the works which Paul excludes from justification, is understood the perfect observance of the law, such as the legal covenant requires.  For thus he says de servat. P.4. c. 11. ‘the works to which faith is opposed are not every kind of works, nor taken and considered in every light, but, as we have observed elsewhere, these works denote an absolute and perpetual observance and performance of the divine law, through the whole course of life.’  But our divines openly declared against this exposition; who contend that all works, however considered, are opposed to faith.”

                     Herman Witsius, The Economy Of The Covenants Between God and Man, Volume I, 413-414


“The apostle in his whole argument proceeds on the assumption that God is just; that he does and must demand righteousness in those whom he justifies.  There are but two possible ways in which this righteousness can be obtained—by works, or by faith.  We must either have a righteousness of our own, or receive and trust in a righteousness which is not our own, but which has been wrought out for us, and presented to us, as the ground of our acceptance with God.  The quotation is from Lev. xviii. 5, ‘The man that doeth those things shall live by them.’ Those things are the things prescribed by the law.  It is the clear doctrine of the Scriptures, that obedience to the law, to secure justification, must be perfect.  For it is said, ‘Cursed is every one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them;’ and, he that offendeth in one point, is guilty of all.  It is not necessary that a man who commits murder should also steal, in order to bring him under the penalty of the law.  The legal system, then, which demanded obedience, required perfect obedience.”

                     Charles Hodge, Commentary on Romans, 337

[1] Lee Irons, “2014 Reading – Theology – Justification,” January 23, 2015,

[2] Stephen M. Cunha, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification, (The Trinity Foundation, 2011).

[3] Lee Irons, “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology,” in Creator, Redeemer, Consummator: A Festschrift for Meredith G. Kline, Howard Griffith and John R. Muether, editors (Wipf & Stock, 2007).

[4] O. Palmer Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy, (The Trinity Foundation, 2003).

[5] Robertson, The Current Justification Controversy, 14.

[6] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION.  Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.  Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

[7] R. Scott Clark,, July 1, 2008.  Oddly, this entire blog was deleted from the Internet in the spring of 2011.

[8] John Calvin, Sermons On Galatians, (Old Path Publications, 1995), 13.

[9] My own translation.

[10] Alan D. Strange, “In Memoriam: The Rev. Arthur Kuschke Jr.”, Ordained Servant Online (A Journal for Church Officers in the OPC), November 2013, Gregory E. Reynolds, general editor.

[11] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, (Paternoster Press, 2006).

[12] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “Justification and Eschatology,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan For Us In Justification, K. Scott Oliphant, editor (Mentor Imprint by Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2007).

[13] See the chapter “Gaffin Denies Law/Gospel Antithesis” in Stephen M. Cunha, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffins Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification.

[14] Moisés Silva, Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method – Second Edition, (Baker Academic, 2001).  The book is dedicated “To the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary.”

[15] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and The Order of Salvation – Second Edition, (P&R Publishing, 2013).  Note that two distinct endorsements from Moisés Silva are contained in this edition.  The first can be found just inside the book’s front cover and the second is on the back jacket of the book.  Endorsements from Sinclair Ferguson, Mark Garcia, Charles E. Hill, Dennis E. Johnson, Lane Tipton, Cornelius Venema, Guy Prentiss Waters, and Robert W. Yarbrough are also included in this edition.

[16] Foreword to Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and The Order of Salvation – Second Edition, xi.

[17] Foreword to Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and The Order of Salvation – Second Edition, xi.

[18] Jonathan Edwards’s praise of Van Mastricht notwithstanding, if Jones is representing Van Mastricht accurately, perhaps Van Mastricht’s view on justification is an important reason his magnum opus, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, has not yet (after more than 300 years) been fully translated into English.  It is my understanding that translation of the full work is currently being performed by the Dutch Reformed Translation Society.

[19] Mark A. Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology, (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008).  Garcia says, with reference to Gaffin, on page xx of the Preface, “Personally, his influence upon my thinking is reason enough to dedicate this project to him.”

[20] Mark A. Garcia with a response by Michael S. Horton, “Sic Et Non: Views in Review: III. Westminster Seminary California Distinctives?  I. Law and Gospel,” The Confessional Presbyterian: A Journal for Discussion of Presbyterian Doctrine & Practice, Volume 10, 2014, Chris Coldwell, General Editor and Publisher, 172.

[21] Stephen M. Cunha, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.’s Doctrine of Justification, 85.

[22] Old English spelling has been corrected for readability in the quotations by Perkins, Polanus, and Ball.