Justification and the Gospel: A Response to Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart recently published a provocative article entitled “The Ecumenical Gospel,” in which he argues that the Bible does not equate the gospel with justification by faith, and therefore Protestants ought not regard their understanding of the gospel (even if justification by faith is true biblically) as inherently distinct from that of Roman Catholics. In other words, justification by faith must not be, as Protestants have long argued, “the article by which the church stands or falls,” but is instead a small tributary that feeds into the large river of the gospel that Protestant and Catholic alike share. I encourage to you head over there and read his brief article before continuing on here. I’ll wait.

Okay, glad you’re back. Here are some major problems I see with Leithart’s argument:

(1) Yes, Jesus proclaims good news about God’s invasion of the world “in order to reclaim his disordered creation.” Amen and amen. The gospel certainly announces that reality, but it does not merely announce what God is doing. It summons hearers to respond to that announcement in such a way that they might participate in the blessings of it, and the question of justification by faith pertains specifically to the kind of response that results in entrance into the kingdom. I am confident Leithart would agree with this, because he notes rightly that Jesus, in his preaching, issued a call to his hearers to repent.

But what is repentance? Protestant theologians have long maintained that repentance is simply the reverse side of faith. It is turning our back on sin because we are turning ourselves in wholehearted trust to Christ. And so sometimes we read Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), but that appears to be a shorthand way of saying, “repent and believe in the gospel.” The call to repentance is, in other words, a call to faith, because these two things are inseparable.

We must be careful not to reduce Jesus’ preaching of the gospel to a mere announcement along the lines of, “This is what God is doing.” It also included a call for personal response, which, when spelled out from the rest of his teachings as well as that of the other New Testament writings, is essentially a call to faith. Everywhere in Jesus’ ministry, we see him responding in blessing to those who come to him in faith:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” — Mark 2:5

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” — Matt. 11:10

Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” — John 6:29

And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” . . . And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” — Luke 7:48, 50

Examples could be multiplied, but Leithart could respond by saying that, since the gospel of Roman Catholicism calls for faith every bit as much as does the Protestant teaching, we should not draw a line of distinction over the very nature of the gospel at this point. To that claim I would respond by pointing out that the posture that Jesus consistently affirms as the only one able to receive the blessing of God’s favor is a posture that recognizes one’s own spiritual bankruptcy and throws oneself entirely on the mercy of God, and that this is what Jesus means by “faith”. In other words, the only heart prepared to receive the blessings of the kingdom Jesus announced is the heart that refuses to trust in its own righteousness and looks to the promise of God in Christ. That kind of posture is represented in the blessing pronounced over the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), in the numerous stories of the utterly wicked and/or utterly needy people whose faith is met with Jesus’ blessing, and in particular in a parable Jesus tells about a man who was justified by calling out to God for mercy (Luke 18:9-14). Leithart’s observation that we can, like Jesus, preach the kingdom without using the phrase “justification by faith” is certainly true, but the mere absence of the phrase does not indicate an absence of the concept, which is all over the Gospels.

To the degree that Catholic theology calls for humble dependence on the grace of God as our only hope of receiving God’s favor (as opposed to depending on his grace plus the accrual of merit that we achieve by his grace), to that same degree is it aligned with the good news Jesus proclaimed, specifically in reference to how we must respond to the news. But to that degree also does it proclaim a gospel of justification by faith alone, which, ever since the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church has officially (if not always in practice) repudiated as an anti-gospel.

(2) Leithart’s survey of the preaching of the gospel in Acts omits the numerous references to the forgiveness of sins that is now offered to those who repent and believe, which is, as in the Gospels, a way of referring to justification by faith. Leithart’s argument that Paul’s use of the term “justified” in his Acts 13 sermon actually means “freed” offers no basis for that translation, other than the fact that many English translations use it. But contextually and linguistically, I see no reason to prefer glossing the verb any other way than it is normally glossed in the New Testament, which is with the meaning “justified.” The fact that sermons in Acts are consistently oriented toward the coming judgment, announcing the hope of forgiveness to those who believe now, makes it entirely plausible that Paul would use “justified” in its normal, judicial sense in Acts 13. But even apart from the debate over this single terms, the broader context of Acts shows that the apostles proclaimed a gospel that told people how they could be in right standing with God at the coming judgment.

(3) Everything Leithart says about Paul’s gospel in Romans is true, and yet after a few cursory references to Paul’s opening remarks, Leithart gives no attention to the progression of Paul’s argument in the letter, which makes a very strong case for justification by faith alone, apart from works of the Law (see especially chapters 3-4). Again, Leithart seems to reduce the gospel to a mere announcement, rather than an announcement along with a call to respond by faith.

(4) It is true that Paul does not mention justification in 1 Corinthians 15, but he does mention faith repeatedly, with the implication that it is faith that connects one personally to the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In vv. 1-2 he speaks of the gospel “which you received,” i.e., by faith, “in which you stand,” again, by faith, “and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast [i.e., continue in faith] to the word I preached to you–unless you believed [exercised faith] in vain.” Again, he connects the preaching of the gospel to faith in v. 11, implying that the reception of its benefits comes to those who trust the message. Again, Leithart appears to take the absence of the term “justification by faith” to mean that the concept is not present.

(5) Leithart’s cursory treatment of Galatians omits the central observation that Paul anathemetized those teachers who claimed that Law-observance was a necessary supplement to faith in order to attain right standing with God at the final judgment (1:8-9). In other words, in the only New Testament book we have specifically written on this question, Paul sharply divides with those who would claim that faith alone is insufficient for justification.

Perhaps Leithart would want to affirm a reading of Galatians that is more akin to that offered by the new perspective on Paul, namely, one that sees the problem of the Judaizers pertaining scope of salvation rather than its means. That is, perhaps he might claim that Paul anathemetized those who would restrict the gospel to Jews by proclaiming the necessity of law observance for salvation, thereby excluding the Gentiles and nullifying the truth of the good news. But this argument is reductionistic. While it is true that Jew-Gentile issues are at the heart of Paul’s argument in Galatians, it is important to recognize that the Judaizers were not seeking to exclude Gentiles. They were seeking to include them through the expansion of Torah observance beyond the borders of Israel. So the difference between Paul and the Judaizers is not that one viewed a Gentile mission as legitimate and the other did not, for both were committed to a Gentile mission. The difference between them had to do with the means by which Gentiles could become children of Abraham. Paul argued that it was by faith alone, and the Judaizers argued that it was by faith plus Torah observance, which thereby threatened the sufficiency of the gospel of Christ and moved backwards in redemptive history. I stand confidently in the affirmation that Paul virtually equates justification by faith alone with the gospel in his argument in the book of Galatians.

(6) Theologically, I think it is important for us to recognize what is really at the heart of the Protestant-Catholic divide on this question. I believe the real issue pertains to eschatology. For Roman Catholics, the final judgment is a future event at which their eternal destiny will be determined, and they can have no certainty about how before it actually happens. Roman Catholic believers, in other words, are always preparing themselves to be justified (in the judicial sense) in the future, as they build on the grace of God that has come to them through the sacraments with good works that accrue merit throughout their lives. Assurance of God’s justifying verdict is forbidden (except to those with extraordinary revelations from God), and thus their system of salvation lends itself toward a relationship with God that is primarily oriented toward achieving his future favor and blessing.

Protestants, on the other hand, regard the final judgment as brought forward into history in the death and resurrection of Christ, in whose justification we share when we are joined to him by faith. Because we have already died and been raised with Christ, the moment of greatest consequence for our eternal destiny has already passed. The verdict has been rendered, and court has already been adjourned. The final judgment that remains before us in the future is not one that will determine our standing with God, but is rather the public demonstration of what is already true of us in Christ. Therefore, we relate to God with assurance of his favor and blessing on us now. The confidence we have before him makes a world of difference in the way that we practice our faith in a daily basis.

(7) This article stands as one more indication to me that Peter Leithart is pursuing an inherently unstable project. So far, he has managed to remain formally a Protestant with strong ecumenical leanings. But the movement he is seeking to build, much like the Tractarian movement of the early 19th century, is not one that can have long-term stability in its current form. I do not foresee the possibility that generations who follow in Leithart’s footsteps will remain Protestant, because, brick by brick, he keeps removing the foundations of Protestantism in his theological system. All of the Tractarians that I am aware of eventually abandoned their project and joined the Roman Catholic Church. Leithart himself may never make that move, but if he does, it will not at all surprise me. That his followers will do so, I have almost no doubt.

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