White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

How Jesus Accomplished Our Justification

Published Monday, November 19, 2018 By Michael S. Horton

“When were you saved?”  Many Protestants who ask that question might be as flummoxed as traditional Roman Catholics by the Reformers’ answer, roughly paraphrased: “On Easter weekend, around AD 33.”  Strictly speaking, we are not justified by faith any more than by works.  It is the apostle Paul himself who declares that we are “justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9) and that Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

While Roman Catholic and many Protestant systems treat justification under the third article (i.e., the Holy Spirit and his work of regenerating), early Lutheran and Reformed confessions see justification as second-article (i.e., christological) doctrine.  Jesus’ death and resurrection did not make salvation possible but accomplished it.  Therefore, one cannot talk about justification as anything other than the realization here and now of what happened objectively in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “During his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.  This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.”

Apart from the atonement, justification either hovers above history as an eternal decision or becomes assimilated to the inner experience of conversion.  In fact, Yale theologian George Lindbeck argues that many people find justification incomprehensible because there is a deeper inability to comprehend the atonement.  He surmises that even in evangelical circles, exemplary (subjective) theories have become dominant in popular preaching and piety.  In any case, “The atonement is not high on the contemporary agendas of either Catholics or Protestants.”  Though continuing to use sola fide language, ‘deciding for Christ’ turns faith “into a meritorious good work.”

Everyone is thus capable of being ‘born again’ if only he or she tries hard enough.  Thus with the loss of the Reformation understanding of the faith that justifies as itself God’s gift, Anselmic atonement theory became culturally associated with a self-righteousness that was both moral and religious and therefore rather nastier, its critics thought, that the primarily moral self-righteousness of the liberal Abelardians.  In time, to move on in our story, the liberals increasingly ceased to be even Abelardian.

Indeed, Lindbeck suggests, much of popular preaching especially in the United States today is a type of ‘Pelagianism’ that is beyond anything propounded at the Council of Trent.  “Where the cross once stood is now a vacuum.”  In light of these facts, the Lutheran-Vatican agreements (in which Lindbeck played a large hand) seem irrelevant.  “It seems that the withdrawal of the condemnations under these circumstances is not wrong, but vacuous.”  In addition to the challenge of therapeutic individualism, modern Pelagianism reduces redemption to sociopolitical action.  George Hunsinger judges that in much of modern Christianity “the social or horizontal aspect of reconciliation….eclipses its vertical aspect.”

It is the grounding of justification in Christ’s life, work, and ministry that subverts the charge of ‘legal fiction’: that is, an arbitrary decree that has no basis in reality.  Like forensic justification, substitution is not the whole story, but without it the other chapters are left blank.  The cluster of commercial and legal terms I will be collecting fall under the rubric Agnus Dei, while the terms that focus on military conquest I will refer to as Christus Victor. 

The Lord Who Is Servant: Recapitulation and the Obedience of Christ

Christus Victor and Agnus Dei, victory and sacrifice, are woven together from the very beginning.  Christ’s victory and vicarious self-offering begin with the incarnation itself.  Drawing from a significant patristic vein, Calvin argues, “In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”

Already with the theme of recapitulation we discern the integrated threads of the gospel narrative under the rubric of the ‘great exchange.’  The “summing-up of all things in Christ”—or literally ‘reheadshipping’—in Ephesians 1:10 is behind the idea, and as far as I can tell, the first reference to the Son’s work of recaptitulation appears in Justin Martyr’s Contra Marcion.  Associated especially with the second-century bishop Irenaeus (in his fifth book Against Heresies), recapitulation became an important patristic motif.

Over against the Gnostics (especially Marcion and Valentinus), the early fathers stressed the unity of God as creator and redeemer.  Instead of saving individual souls from their bodies and this world, these ancient Christians taught that God becomes flesh in order to restore it—and more than restore, to raise it to the plane of eschatological glory that Adam’s treason aborted.  Iranaeus was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the two Adams in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  He writes of Christ,

He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam…The enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of woman who conquered him…And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life through a victorious one; and as through man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.

In this view, Christ—not only by his death and resurrection but also by his incarnation and obedient life—undoes the work of the first Adam and fulfills his commission representatively on our behalf.  From Adam we receive death; from Christ we receive life.  Of crucial significance in Irenaeus’s thought is his emphasis on Christ’s humanity as his link with us and our bond with him (and therefore with God).  In his headship, everything we lost in Adam is comprehensively recovered in Christ.

According to Gustav Aulén, the ‘classic view’—unlike vicarious satisfaction—constitutes ‘a veritable resolution’ by declaring that God has “broken through the order of justice and merit, triumphed over the powers of evil, and created a new relation between the world and God.”  But if Christ has “broken through the order of justice and merit,” then he has not honored the order of creation that has been violated and that he himself, as God, demands be restored.  Irenaeus explains it differently.  First, for Irenaeus, none of the elect in either Testament has ever been justified by merit, and second, they are justified by Christ’s fulfillment of the order of justice and merit.  While “the law of works occupied the intervening period” between Abraham and Christ, he says, in both Old and New Testaments justification is through faith alone.  The covenant of grace unites the whole of Scripture.  “Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field…since He was pointed out by means of types and parables.”  “For ‘all men come short of the glory of God,’ and are not justified of themselves, but by the advent of the Lord—they who earnestly direct their eyes toward His light.”

Recapitulation and justification affirm that God did not—could not—circumvent creation (the covenant of works) and the law (given at Sinai) in order to reconcile us to himself; instead he had to become what we were and be born ‘under the law’ to fulfill that justice we owed and bear the curse that was ours (Gal. 4:4), to win the victory over Satan and the powers of the flesh (human capacity under sin and death) and take our glorified humanity with him to the right hand of the Father in grand conquest (Heb. 2:9-13).  By itself, the defeat of evil powers does not require the incarnation.  Yahweh could easily have destroyed Satan and his hosts, but humanity would not have been redeemed.  The defeat of the powers requires atonement: the guilt offering, the purification offering, and peace offering.   By becoming the last Adam, faithfully enduring the trial, and winning the right for his posterity to eat of the Tree of Life, the incarnate Son is the source not only of forgiveness but of life, justification, glorification, and communion with the triune God in a regenerated cosmos.

Christ’s recapitulation of Adam’s ruined headship begins already in his incarnation.  “How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?” asks the Heidelberg Catechism.  It answers: “He is our mediator and, in God’s sight, he covers us with his innocence and perfect holiness my sinfulness in which I was conceived.”  The incarnation was not merely a prelude to redemption but an essential part of it (Heb. 4:15).  Not only at Jesus’ death but in his incarnation and obedience, the inscription above Jesus’ whole existence says “for you.”  Especially for this reason, Calvin and other Reformers so strongly denounced the doctrine of the ‘celestial flesh’ taught by some Anabaptists.  The Reformers echoed the words of Gregory of Nazianzus against Apollinaris: “That which he did not assume, he did not heal.”  Thinkers like Irenaeus and Calvin realized that only by becoming everything that we are and going through the trial of justice could Jesus cancel our guilt and heal our wounds.

Recapitulation continues through Jesus’ entire life of obedience as our representative.  Even in the opening scenes of Jesus’ ministry, he is found recapitulating the trial of Adam and Israel in his temptation by the serpent.  At each seminal moment of Jesus’ suffering obedience, the Father announces his benediction with the Spirit signaling his approval: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17 with Isa. 42:1; Matt. 17:5).  Repeatedly, we read that specific actions were performed not to break the chains of the Creator and Law-Giver by ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ (Matt. 3:15; John 4:34, 8:29, etc.)  It is not enough to be forgiven; we must be restored and obtain the status of the righteous Son-image of God.  In Christ’s active obedience, this demand becomes a reality.

However, even though Christ’s vicarious self-offering begins with his incarnation and active obedience, Irenaeus underscores that it culminates in his vicarious sacrifice: “And truly the death of the Lord became the means of healing and remission of sins.”  “Abraham himself,” along with the other patriarchs, “were justified…without the law of Moses” but only “through faith in God’s promise.”  It also represents, according to Irenaeus, “crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam.”  There were two broad types (with, of course, many variations) of sacrifice in the old covenant: thanksgiving and guilt offerings.  Thanksgiving implies recognition of dependence, the opposite of autonomy.  But since the fall, not only is a life of thanksgiving necessary, but a guilt offering as well.  Both are offered freely by Jesus in his active and passive obedience.  Offering a bull, ram, or goat for violations is one thing.  But what delights the Father is living wholly, perfectly, and personally with palms outstretched to the Great King, saying, “Here I am, O Lord.”  It is precisely this sacrifice of thanks—a living sacrifice—that Jesus offered and that Hebrews 10:5-18, interpreting Psalm 40, regards as superior to the burnt sacrifices that never removed sins but only reminded the conscience of guilt.  Hebrews 5:7-9 illumines the point:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offers up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

Because of Christ’s active obedience, we have not only forgiveness (the guilt offering), but justification (crediting his complete obedience in offering his life as a thank offering).  Having been justified, all who are united to him must be glorified.  What then is left for us?  Nothing but a responsive life of grateful praise as recipients of and participants in his victorious entrance into the Sabbath enthronement.  “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14).

Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.  The above excerpt was taken from Justification, Volume 2 by Michael Horton. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Horton. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

  • Michael S. Horton