Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine.
Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those: 3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall.
When Synod says “acceptance with God” with respect to Adam, they were referring to the biblical and confessional doctrine that Adam was given a law to obey as the condition of glorification.
Genesis 2:16–17 says: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (ESV). Our Belgic Confession calls these words the “command of life.” Adam’s life (and ours in him) was contingent upon obedience to this command, which we, with Paul, understand as a synecdoche, i.e., a part for the whole. The law of God requires that we love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves. In this case, Adam’s immediate neighbor was Eve but, in a sense, as the federal (representative) head of all humanity, Adam was to love us also by keeping the law, which he had the power to do.Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:45 set the paradigm for our understanding of this aspect of Gen 2. In 1 Corinthians 15:45 Paul speaks of the “first man Adam” and he calls Christ the “last Adam.” That is, he reads the whole of redemptive history in terms of two representative men: Adam and Christ. One was disobedient and missed glorification. The other was obedient and glorified. In Romans 5:12–21, the Apostle Paul uses the same “two Adam” scheme to interpret redemptive history. In v.12 Paul says that it was Adam’s disobedience that brought sin into the world. Notice that it was not Adam’s “fall from grace.” Adam’s sin was law breaking. That is also what the Apostle John says: sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Thus, Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 14 defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” The fundamental human problem is legal and therefore its solution must also be legal.
This is the biblical and theological ground for synod speaking of our“ground of acceptance by God.” On what basis does God accept anyone? On the basis of perfect legal righteousness and because Paul links Adam and Christ so closely and they are so closely linked in our theology and confessions, whatever we say about Adam tends to color what we say about Jesus. If we say that God would have accepted Adam’s obedience on the basis of grace (or congruent merit whereby God imputes perfection to imperfect obedience) then what will we say about Christ’s obedience? Some defenders of the covenant moralists have said that God the Father accepted Jesus’ obedience by grace.
Some of them have argued that Paul teaches this in Philippians 2. David VanDrunen and I have replied to this claim in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. The short answer is that this claim relies on a fallacious etymology. In fact, as we demonstrate, Jesus earned approval from the Father by doing all that the Father gave him to do and all that he voluntarily agreed to do on our behalf (John 17). Just as the First Adam was in a covenant of works, so the Last Adam was in a covenant of works. Unlike the first, Adam, however, Christ, the last man, did not fail. He resisted temptation (Matt 4:1–11). He rebuked the evil one with God’s Word and he underwent the penalty due to the first Adam and all his children (1 Pet 3:18). This is precisely what Paul continues to teach in Romans 5:14, that Adam was a “type of the one who was to come.”According to Paul, (v. 15) “many died through one man’s trespass….” That “one man” was Adam. Again, please note that Paul here speaks of Adam’s “trespass.” This is the language of the courts. “To trespass” is to violate the law. Only in this case does the contrast make sense: “But the free gift is not like the trespass.” When Paul says “free gift” he is speaking of grace. We, who trust in Christ’s finished work, are the beneficiaries of the satisfaction of the law made for us by another (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 12–19). Grace is premised on righteousness. Christ satisfied all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).
Adam’s disobedience brought death and condemnation (vv.16, 18a). Christ’s obedience brought grace, life, and salvation to all who believe (vv.16, 17). In v.18b Paul puts a fine point on things. He contrasts Adam’s “one trespass” with Christ’s “one [act of] righteousness” that brought “justification of life.” Verse 19 says the same thing. By “the one man’s disobedience” all were constituted sinners, i.e., Adam’s sin was imputed to us all. So too, by the “the one man’s obedience” will believers be constituted as righteous. Just as Adam’s trespass is imputed to those whom he represented (all humanity), so the Second Adam’s obedience is imputed to all those whom he represented, i.e., the elect, those who believe. In both cases, the ground of our standing before God was righteousness. In Adam’s case, it was his actual righteousness, under the terms of the covenant, until he forfeited it by sin. In Jesus’ case it was actual, inherent righteousness by virtue of his obedience for us that is imputed to us. This is the ground of our justification.
Though the Roman Catholic and covenantal moralist critics of the Reformation doctrine of justification deride it as a “legal fiction,” our view is no such thing. Indeed, it is both Rome and the moralists who teach a doctrine of justification by legal fiction since they both teach that God imputes perfection to our best efforts (congruent merit). The Reformed churches teach that Christ actually fulfilled the law. His actual, perfect righteousness is credited, reckoned, imputed to all who believe. The ground of our righteousness, after the fall, is not inherent or intrinsic to us. It is inherent or intrinsic to Christ our righteousness and credited to us who believe.
Following a small group of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theologians including the neonomian Richard Baxter, the Federal Visionists have repeatedly called into question the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, either by denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, or by quibbling about “imputation,” or by openly denying that we sinners need anyone’s righteousness imputed to us. In contrast, Synod Schererville declared “that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.”
Synod also rejected the revision of the definition of faith, in the act of justification, proposed first by the Arminians—that faith justifies because it obeys—and put forward byNorman Shepherd from 1974, i.e., that faith justifies because it trusts and obeys. Of course, it is obvious that if faith justifies because it works then the power of faith does not rest fully in Christ and in his finished work. If that were so, in the words of Belgic Confession Art. 22, “it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified ‘by faith alone’ or by faith ‘apart from works.’”
The question about the “instrument” of justification is about the nature of faith in God’s declaration of justification. How does faith function in God’s declaration? Does God declare us righteous because true faith “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own….” (Belgic Confession Art. 22) or does God declare us righteous because we trust and obey? This was the choice faced by the Reformed Churches at Dort and this is the choice faced by the Reformed Churches today. This is why we deny that “faith itself” justifies (Belgic Confession, Art. 22). Faith itself does not justify. Faith is not the legal basis for God’s declaration that we are righteous. Christ’s righteousness imputed justifies. Christ’s righteousness imputed is the legal basis for our justification. We confess that, “faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.” (Belgic Confession, Art. 22).
This is what Synod meant by speaking of the “instrument” of acceptance with God. The Heidelberg Catechism defines true faith as a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust.” Belgic Confession Article 23 defines faith in the act of justification (God’s declaration) as “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.” Because we define faith this way, it is inappropriate to speak of Adam or Jesus having faith in this sense. Certainly the First and Second Adam trusted their Father, but Adam, in his state of righteousness, needed to trust no one else for justification because he was just. He needed no “mediator,” in that sense. To say that our Savior needed to trust the righteousness of another is blasphemy (Belgic Confession Art. 22).
For us sinners, Christ and his obedience for us, in our place, is our righteousness. True, justifying, faith leans, rests, trusts, and accepts Christ and his righteousness as its own. Anyone, for whatever reason, who says anything else about the ground or instrument of justification before God, is certainly not teaching the Reformed doctrine of justification.
THE NINE POINTS OF (URCNA) SYNOD 2007
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);
2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);
3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;
4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);
5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);
6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);
7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86);
8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);
9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).
Dr. R. Scott Clark is an Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.