Jonée Lillard's Second Place Essay

The Science of Faith: The Emperor Has No Clothes: Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.'s Doctrine of Justification and the Importance of Sound Theological Methods

One of the most common statements the Bible makes about itself is that it is to be read, studied, and obeyed by all who consider themselves to belong to its Author. When Israel's wilderness generation stood at the brink of entering the Promised Land, God commanded them to meditate continually on His laws, keep them in mind in every way possible, teach them to their children, and talk them over in every snippet of available time (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).  Israel's future kings were commanded to write their own copies of the Torah and study them continually; Joshua was commanded not to let "this book of the law… depart from [his] mouth" (Deuteronomy 17:18-19; Joshua 1:8). The New Testament stresses even more the importance of "studying to show [one]self approved unto God," especially for leaders; however, the study of Scripture is not meant merely to be the sole province of church leaders and other specialists (2 Timothy 2:15). Ordinary believers are commanded to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" and to "desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby" (1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18). The application of reason to make sense of the data found in Scripture is also essential if we are to discern the certain, objective truths of the Word of God and thereby know God, as every human being must.

Additionally, getting to know God is intended to be an intellectual pursuit, although without the self-reliant, man-exalting arrogance that Western culture commonly associates with intellectualism (McGrath, xiii-xiv). Rather, the human mind is part of the image of God in man and is meant to be brought into obedience to Christ, submitted to His Word, and used to discern the truth in any situation, including by applying sound reasoning to the truths of Scripture, taking them as the foundation for all other beliefs (2 Corinthians 10:5, Hebrews 5:14). Theology seems, then, to have many of the characteristics of a science. Indeed, theologians throughout the ages have called their practice "the science of faith," and some helpful analogies could possibly be drawn between this science and the more familiar natural science, not necessarily because the latter informs the former but because science, in its more common definition, is one segment of culture that has not yet totally sacrificed its brain to its gut (Clark, "Art and the Gospel"; McGrath, xiii).

Admittedly, significant differences exist between the two disciplines. Scientific theories, for instance, are not epistemically true, and, while currently accepted theories are considered the best existing approximations to the truth because they best explain the behavior of nature and the results of experiment, they are always considered tentative and open to revision if strong, non-fitting evidence is found or another theory is proposed that explains all existing evidence better (Clark, "Science and Truth;" Robbins, "The Scientist as Evangelist"). Scripture, on the other hand, is both epistemically true and closed; no new revelation is coming that will disprove, contradict, or call for revision of what God's Word has already said. …

While the subject matter, level of certainty, and importance of theology differ widely from those of natural science, however, they share some methodological similarities. Both deal with impartial evaluation of an objective body of data, employ proper procedures for analyzing that data, use specific terminology, and formulate theories that are based on the data and make testable predictions. Most bad science and almost all unsound theology, if analyzed, can be found to violate one or more of those principles; the more are violated, usually, the worse the error; and application of good methods to evaluate suspect theories is an important function of both disciplines. One recent example of this checking mechanism at work is in Stephen M. Cunha's The Emperor Has No Clothes, which is devoted to debunking via Scriptural analysis an erroneous doctrine of justification that has been spreading through the Christian community. Specifically, he targets Dr. Richard Gaffin's iteration of this error, which posits that believers are incompletely justified by the work of Christ and that individual good works are necessary to complete it. As may be expected for such a severe aberration from the truth, several of the principles of theological science are violated in his faith-and-works theory.

Dr. Gaffin Teaches Believers Are, In One Sense, Still Under Condemnation

"Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding."

 – Proverbs 3:5

First, when attempting to answer a question or solve a problem in science, all data pertaining to the question must be considered, and the answer or conclusion must be drawn from the data. Approaching a data set or experiment with a preconceived conclusion and acknowledging only the data that supports the hypothesis is a cardinal sin of science. No matter how logical the theories on which the hypothesis is based, if the data, properly interpreted, do not support it, it is to be discarded or revised. Additionally, one must know the boundaries of where different models and theories apply, and if the data indicates that a certain model does not fit best, then to bull ahead and use it anyway due to personal preference is unacceptable. Similarly, in theology, if an interpretation of a difficult verse contradicts, or leads to a conclusion that contradicts, the clear teaching of other passages or the Bible as a whole, that interpretation is very likely wrong and should be discarded or revised in light of the broader teaching of Scripture. Additionally, approaching the Word of God with a pet interpretive theory or theme in mind and ignoring Scriptures that contraindicate its use for that purpose results in eisegesis and faulty interpretations.

Dr. Gaffin appears to have committed both of these research misdeeds in his application of the already/not-yet dichotomy to Christians' mortality. In the first chapter, Cunha calls attention to two books of Dr. Gaffin's in which the latter asserts that death, even for believers, is "a judicial punishment by God for sin" (Cunha, 14). Gaffin's main points of support for this argument are 2 Corinthians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15:56. He argues from the contrast in 2 Corinthians between the apostle's outward mortality and suffering and his spiritual progress and glorification that the already/not-yet principle partially derivable from it applies to the removal of the penalty of sin by Christ's death (Cunha). Additionally, he interprets the idea of sin as "the sting of death" to mean that death is still inextricably linked to punishment for sin, even for the Christian. …

Once again, when a line of reasoning from one passage of Scripture — or one phrase in one passage, as Dr. Gaffin takes — whether intended to settle some theological question or to interpret a difficult passage, leads to a conclusion that contradicts other Scriptures and the overall clear teaching of the Bible, that conclusion must be discarded or revised to align with Scripture, and the interpretations that grounded the argument should also be reconsidered….

In refuting Dr. Gaffin's incorrect conclusion, Cunha presents large amounts of the Scriptural data regarding death and the Christian. He produces copious evidence from both the Bible and the Catechism that the Christian's sufferings and death are not judicial penalties; the believer is under "no condemnation" by God but is fully justified by faith (Romans 8:1). Instead, like everything else a Christian faces, suffering and death "work together for the good of those who love God;" suffering becomes fatherly discipline, and "death is swallowed up in victory" in that it represents the perfection of the believer and ushers him or her into Christ's unveiled presence, as even Dr. Gaffin acknowledges (Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 15:55; Cunha, 23)….

How then did Dr. Gaffin reach the conclusion stated in the earlier passages? Poor methodology, insufficient Scripture search and improper adherence to a pet model over the Scriptural data, seems to be the answer. Despite Dr. Gaffin's qualifications, his crime is apparently negligence at best and obstinacy at worst. Dr. Gaffin's mishandlings of the Scriptures, seen so far, are not merely research peccadillos but failure or refusal to do the due diligence needed to "rightly divide the word of truth" (1 Timothy 2:15)….

Dr. Gaffin Teaches Justification by Faith and Works

"Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil."

 –-1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

Another major element of scientific investigation is that any theory leads logically to specific predictions and is tested by responsibly searching the data for confirmation of those predictions. The best theories and models are those that best represent the data, whether found observationally or obtained experimentally. Similar, theological models or theories also lead to logical conclusions, as Paul's repeated use of logical argument exemplifies. Additionally, two theological models can be compared against each other by testing their predictions against the Scriptural data to see which fits and explains more of it in a more consistent way. Such comparison forms the heart of Cunha's second chapter, in which he compares Dr. Gaffin's statements about the roles of faith and works in justification with those put forth by classical Protestantism by thorough testing against the Word (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

One necessary characteristic of a good theory is that it must be internally consistent and logical. In the first few pages, Cunha reports two statements that Dr. Gaffin made regarding the relative roles of faith and works in justification of the believer. In the first statement, Dr. Gaffin says that works are "the integral fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith," which superficially corresponds with an orthodox understanding of works but apparently means that the works associated with faith are an essential part of it, without which it cannot be real (Cunha, 27). Gaffin qualifies his statements by saying that faith and works are "unintelligible apart from each other" but not "co-instrumental," but, as Cunha points out, the use of "integral" seems to put works and faith on the same level and wrap them together into an inseparable bundle so that where one goes, the other follows, "nullifying his orthodox denials and affirmations" (Cunha, 26-8). However, this is not the only flaw with his argument, as Cunha soon exposes. Dr. Gaffin seems to define "co-instrumental" in a hair-splittingly specific way in an attempt to maintain the appearance of orthodoxy, to mean instrumental in equal measure; however, the orthodox and Scriptural position is that works are not instrumental in justification at all. Rather, the Bible teaches that works are merely the evidence of justification, as a tree's fruit is the evidence of the health and species of the tree (Matthew 7:16). …

Another prediction of the faith-alone theory of justification is that any true, complete statement of it would leave no room for human pride. The preponderance of the Scriptural data states that those who are justified by faith have no basis to boast before God (Romans 4:2, Galatians 2:8-9). Indeed, the true system of justification by faith is set up precisely so that all the glory redounds to God and "no flesh should glory in His presence" (1 Corinthians 1:29). God's methods are the only ones that deal perfectly with the problem of human sinfulness, leaving no room for it to continue to "reign in [the believer's] mortal body" or for those who come to Him to put "confidence in the flesh" or approach Him in their own way (Romans 6:12; Philippians 3:3). By contrast, the faith-and-works theory proposed by Gaffin gives fallen humans ample room to boast. As Cunha duly notes, "if works are permitted to be partially instrumental in justification, they will not be content to stay there;" due to the pride of the sinful heart, if they functioned as the instrument of justification to any extent, they would eventually be perceived as its partial ground (Cunha, 33). Paul was completely correct that, if human effort is combined with grace and faith in even trace amounts as essential to justification, "grace is no more grace" (Romans 11:6). …

Dr. Gaffin Denies Absolute Law/Gospel Antithesis in Justification

"In doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity: Sound speech, that cannot be condemned…"

 --Titus 2:8

A third key component of theology, science, and other academic fields is clear, precisely defined terminology. Disciplines of all sorts, from art history to zoology, have specialized bodies of precisely defined language to express and define the ideas and tools of their discipline, ensuring that all practitioners can express to their colleagues exactly what they mean. …

In theology, too, the intense thought and study that faithful men have devoted to the Scriptures over the centuries has resulted in precise statements of theological concepts, which aid readers and writers in clear and correct thought about the content of the Bible. As the importance of a fact increases, so does the importance of precision and clarity in the language used to express it, and the facts of God's Word are the most important body of knowledge ever to appear among men. The gospel's proclamation of grace alone, appropriated by faith alone in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, as the only way to reconciliation with God and eternal life, the solution to the greatest problem man has ever faced, makes that doctrine, specifically, the greatest fact in existence.…

Accordingly, one of the greatest refuges of false teachings and ideas is unclear, ambiguous, or subtly redefined language. Those who "privily…bring in damnable heresies" rarely invent their nomenclatures out of whole cloth; much more often, they give terms and Scriptures familiar to the church new definitions and interpretations that make the heresy sound plausible but are foreign to those gleaned from a holistic reading of the Bible and to the true church throughout history (2 Peter 2:1)….

Scripture presents only one fundamental source of justification, a life of perfect obedience to the law of God, and only two ways for an individual to obtain it (Cunha, 41). The first, the "righteousness of the law," is theoretically possible but practically unachievable because humans are sinful, sin-natured beings and Divine law is a seamless garment (James 2:10; Cunha, 43)…. The second, the "righteousness which is by faith apart from the law," is therefore the only one truly attainable and depends on "the perfect obedience of Christ, secured by the instrumentality of faith alone" (Cunha, 41). Paul expresses this true Law/Gospel antithesis in Romans 11:6: "And if by grace, then it [election and therefore justification] is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work." This verse is speaking of the ground of justification, not the method of sanctification; and, as seen before, if even a tinge of Law-keeping works is mixed into Gospel faith and grace as the ground or the instrument of justification, the practical result is that individuals perceive works as the ground and instrument. Hence, the "antithesis," the mutual exclusion, of Law and Gospel means of righteousness, "is complete" and integral to understanding the Gospel properly (Cunha, 43). Dr. Gaffin, by using it to refer to the Romans 7 enmity between the rebellious human heart and the law of God, grossly misuses the term (Cunha). Additionally, Gaffin's formulation of the antithesis makes it, essentially, a choice between works and faith-plus-works as the routes of justification, which "puts man's works on both sides" and does not, then, seem like much of an antithesis at all, not to mention corrupting the heart of the Gospel (Cunha, 74-5).

Cunha then makes the invaluable point that, not only is the believer not justified by the works that precede salvation, but he is also not justified by those that follow. Again, the true doctrine of justification sees works as mere evidence. Because Paul says that "grace is no more grace" if works are in any way instrumental in salvation, the immiscibility of the methods that Paul mentions in Romans 11:6 applies both before and after salvation. Works remain solely evidentiary throughout the Christian's life, and instead of the Law/Gospel antithesis fading away, the true believer comes to cherish it ever more with increasing awareness of his own sin and God's holiness (Cunha 40, 48, 70-71)….

Dr. Gaffin Endorses Norman Shepherd's Distinctive Covenant Theology

"Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth."

 --Romans 14:22

A final important component of the overall practice of many academic disciplines, science especially, is peer review of published results. When a research group submits a paper to a journal, it does not go straight from receiver's desk to typesetting; instead, it is first reviewed by several other scientists in the same field with expertise in the area the paper discusses and, often, who would be apt to disagree with the paper's conclusion. These reviewers go over the paper carefully, looking for methodological errors in the research, the plausibility and novelty of its conclusions, and other issues, including proper academic style; if they provide sufficiently favorable feedback, the paper is then published. This meticulous review process is intended to prevent bad results based on incorrect theory or sloppy methodology from polluting the sphere of accepted results, causing the wastage of research dollars and man-hours on replicating results that are unlikely to be correct, or misleading future research by encouraging investigation into spurious phenomena.

Once again, the study of God's Word is infinitely more important than any branch of natural science because of the magnitude of the facts involved; the worst that could result from bad science is that many people die, but bad theology could cause many to die spiritually, or, rather, remain dead in their sins….

However, the main point of Cunha's critique was not the obvious wrongness of Shepherd's theology but that Dr. Gaffin had given glowing endorsements of multiple works in which Shepherd presented that aberrant theology. In none of them did he critique the misapplication of covenant theology or the faith-and-works bent of Shepherd's writings. In the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, separation from those who teach or promulgate inaccurate doctrines is repeatedly stressed…. Greeting, enjoying fellowship with, or otherwise materially or socially supporting a false teacher is forbidden to those who know and love the truth, and especially to church leaders, as tantamount to helping advance the false teaching (1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 John 9-11). The glaring question, then, is why Gaffin would assist someone promulgating a glaringly aberrant doctrine by lending statements of that doctrine his academic clout with a positive review, especially considering the danger involved due to both Shepherd and Gaffin's academic positions (Cunha, 92)….

Cunha's tact in this chapter is admirable. Instead of claiming outright that Dr. Gaffin reviewed Shepherd's books positively and uncritically because he agreed with their content, including the aberrant doctrine of justification for which Shepherd was removed from the seminary, he sets out the evidence and gently leads the reader to consider its conclusion. However, by the end of the book, the evidence is undeniable that Dr. Gaffin and Dr. Shepherd are fundamentally in agreement that works form a partial basis of justification.


"Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity... fret not thyself in nay wise to do evil."

 -- Psalm 37:1, 8

Hence, the Bible is unequivocal that Christian pastors and teachers have a responsibility to guard the flocks of Christ against heresy, but, because heresies generally appeal to perceived or real problems among the orthodox, some spiritual epidemiology may be in order when they appear. Along with combating a false teaching, pastors and teachers should do their best to identify the problems that would cause someone to formulate, promulgate, or believe it. As Cunha hints, the most probable spiritual malady spurring the aberrant stress on works found in the writings of Drs. Gaffin, Shepherd, Piper and others is the rampant antinomianism seen in the modern church visible, especially in the United States (Cunha, 96; Piper, "Does God Really Save;" "The Pied Piper Plays Again")….

However, these men, intentions notwithstanding, are guilty of theological malpractice…. A pastor's best response to heresy is to dig into the Scriptural data and "rightly divide the word of truth" to his congregants, administering a dose of doctrine to treat the root problem as well as the secondary disease of the heresy (2 Timothy 2:15). If antinomianism has infected much of the church and needs to be combated, the rest of the Bible includes more than enough spiritual medicine for pastors and teachers to treat the disease. The solution to sin is not to call works instrumental in justification but to preach the full gospel, teach "all the counsel of God," and fulfill the last clause of the Great Commission ("teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you") as well as the first two (Matthew 28:19; Acts 20:27).

Cunha rightly states that what is really at stake here is "the Gospel of God" (103). A final test of any doctrine of justification is that the word "gospel" means "good news," and a framework that ruins the goodness of that news is unlikely to be correct. Dr. Gaffin's model of justification makes justification dependent on one's own works, spoiling the goodness of the news, the relief of the rest promised to those who hold fast the faith until the end (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-11)…. The mingling of faith and works that Dr. Gaffin and some authors that support and agree with him is anti-Christian, just as failure to consider the implications of a theory, account for all relevant data, interact with others' work, and use terms and definitions properly is anti-scientific. Thanks be to God, then, for the work of those like Cunha who turn the light on such errors through the responsible practice of the science of faith.