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What is Justification by Faith Alone? (Basics of the Reformed Faith) Paperback – February 15, 2008
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"In this age of chaos and confusion in the church, the gravest threat has emerged through recent challenges to the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. In 'What Is Justification by Faith Alone?' John Fesko meets the need of the hour with a thoroughly biblical, theologically clear, and historically informed answer to life's greatest question: 'How may I, a sinner, be justified by the holy God?' Though brief, Fesko's booklet is a tour de force of the Bible s teaching of justification." --Richard D. Phillips
"Those who teach and lead will love these booklets because they are a perfect resource to share with inquirers and to use in discipleship." --Ligon Duncan
About the Author
J. V. Fesko (BA, Georgia State University; MA, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Aberdeen) is working with the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute for Biblical Research.
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At creation, God declared all things to be "good" and Fesko claims this is a judicial proclamation. To support this he looks at how the term is used in the rich young ruler story in the gospels and as a synonym for "righteous" in one of the psalms. Adam was under a covenant of works where he was basically given two commands: don't eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and multiply, extending the garden-order throughout creation. Adam failed to keep the covenant and in response God revealed the covenant of grace, promising to provide a "seed" from the woman that would defeat evil. Thus, already in the earliest pages of the Bible we see that God is going to be the one who provides a solution to sin and that man will not solve his own problem.
The story of Noah parallels the story of Adam. God returns the world to a primitive water-covered state and starts over again with a single family. He reissues the command to be fruitful and multiply, but Noah falls into sin "in a garden-vineyard" (12) by getting drunk. Again, blessings and cursings are issued and the sin of his descendants in the tower of Babel reinforces man's hopelessness to redeem himself.
God then calls Abraham from the Chaldees and promises to make him a great nation through which all the nations will be blessed. This is in contrast to the previous incidents, where the persons, Adam and Noah, are given the responsibility to "be fruitful and multiply." With Abraham, God promises to fulfill the command issued to Adam and Noah. When Abraham believed God's promise to "give Abraham many offspring through his one seed" it was counted to him as righteousness. Thus we see the imputation of righteousness on the basis of faith.
Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament is that seed. As the second Adam, he fulfilled the law of God with perfect obedience and then paid the penalty of breaking the law, death, on our behalf. Having conquered death, Jesus was resurrected and won life for all of those who, like Abraham, will place their faith in him.
The essential points we have learned from this exposition of justification are the following. (a) Justification occurs when God declares a sinner righteous on the basis of their faith in Christ. (b) We cannot fulfill the commands of God, therefore we cannot look to ourselves for salvation. We must look to another: the son God has provided in Jesus Christ. (c) Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is the "judicial ground" (24) of our being justified.(d) The fact that our justification is not based on our own merits guarantees our salvation.
Fesko then quotes the Augsburg Confession, the French Confession, the Belgic confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This demonstrates the wide recognition this doctrine has received across various cultures in church history.
But people sometimes object that this doctrine either leads to licentiousness (antinomianism) or that it is "too good to be true" (29). Regarding the fist, Fesko points out that "our justification by faith effects a definitive break with our sinful existence in Adam and begins our new existence in Christ" (28). Justification is simply one aspect of the work of God in the believer's life. Those God justifies he will sanctify. Regarding the last, Fesko points out that whether or not it seems to good to be true, it is the teaching of Scripture (Ga. 1:8-9; 2:16, 21; 3:2-3, etc) and nothing we could do could add to "the all-sufficient work of Christ" (30).
In the end, Fesko points out that this is not merely an abstraction, but supremely practical in that it gives us peace with God and confidence that nothing can disturb that peace. Justification by faith alone is perhaps the most pivotal idea in all of Scripture.
In 26 pages, Fesko does an excellent job at explaining sola fide as we find it in the beginning of the OT and in the NT. You get a feeling that this theme runs throughout Scripture even though he has briefly covered just small (albeit important) sections. His section on antinomianism and legalism are good, but this pamphlet is definitely not an apologetic for those skeptical of sola fide. His remarks on the practicality of the doctrine were welcome but so brief, consisting of just two paragraphs and a concluding paragraph, that it's easy for the reader to race through it without reflecting on the significance of what's being said. The only thing that I'm not sure about is his statement that God's declaration that everything was "good" was a judicial declaration. I have never thought of it as such. It seems more natural to me to read his declaration as it concerns the non-human creation to be a statement of the fittingness of his work (or something like that). God said "let there be..." and it was just as God wanted it: it was good. After all, I don't think rocks and trees have judicial righteousness. As I don't see in the text any indication that "good" is being used differently for how it applies to Adam and Eve, it seems most natural to understand this to be the same kind of goodness, a non-judicial goodness. Nevertheless, Fesko may have some theological and exegetical roots to back him up that I'm just not aware of. So I leave it undecided
Personally I was a bit disappointed. For starters I felt the author was trying to do too much (with 5 points) with such limited space. I felt he barely scratched the surface and then went on. Please note that I am not complaining about this booklet being a booklet—I thought other booklets by the same publisher really did a good job summarizing and proving the doctrine that was the subject at hand. I’ve had glowing reviews of some of these booklets. I think the author for this particular booklet could have done a better job.
Theologically I also felt the author had the difficulty of trying to justify the Covenant of Works from the beginning of Genesis in the first part of the book. I don’t see anywhere in the passage of Genesis 1-3 that hints that God was sending Adam out to do the work of subduing the earth as the basis for the purpose of then declaring Adam as righteous. I think it’s possible to articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone without the encumbrance of discussing Covenant of Works.
I wished the booklet could have focused more on the “alone” part in the doctrine of justification “alone.” I sort of expected the booklet to deal more with the objection that justification involves our works, something that is commonly brought up by those who attack this doctrine. I also wished the booklet made a stronger defense of the distinction between being legally declared righteous and that of practical righteousness.
I love the doctrine of justification by faith alone. My criticism of this booklet is not an attack on the doctrine but it is done with an attitude of hoping to see a better presentation of this beautiful truth of the faith.