Theological Tool Words

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Some are troubled by the idea of definitive justification at the beginning of our Christian lives and another eschatological “justification” at the end of history. They are right to be wary about any attempt to smuggle autonomous works into the equation, but wrong in not realizing that eternity/time transactions cannot always be tidily represented on the blackboard.

I once asked Mike Horton if he agreed with the Reformed commonplace that not only our persons needed to be justified, but that also our works needed to be. He said that he did. I asked him when he thought our works were to be justified, and he answered that he thought that would be at the last day. I thought this was a good possibility, but asked whether this might not be construed by some as a “progressive” justification. Another possibility (it seems to me) is that our works need to be justified as we do them, which seems to be even more like a progressive justification. The strange thing is that because of shibboleth/sibboleth tomato/tomahto issues, a man could find himself in deep presbyterial doo-doo for saying this, depending on his pronunciation. But I cannot imagine any Reformed man getting in trouble anywhere for saying that our works must be justified, and not just our persons. But suppose he talks out loud about when this might happen?

With all this noted, we still need a word to describe the heart transformation that occurs in everyone who goes to heaven. And we need a word to describe the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. We already have stipulated theological definitions for regeneration and justification. Why change them? Some might want a more strictly exegetical name or words for these realities. I am not necessarily against this, but the disadvantage that a biblical name has when it is being used in a precise, theological way is that the need for consistency and precision can then displace the broader (and more gloriously sloppy) connotations that are usually found in any biblical usage. How does the Bible use hypostasis? Does anyone really care anymore?

Back on the topic, in Luke 18, for example, two covenant members go down to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee was rigorously orthodox (and Reformed!) in his formulation. He gave glory to God for all that he had and was (soli Deo gloria!). He thanked God that he was not as other men (what do you have that you did not receive as a gift?), and so forth. We see right through this sin of his, of course, and close our Bibles in order to thank God that we are not like that Pharisee. Sorry, I got sidetracked.

Anyway, the other fellow confessed that he was a sinner, and asked God to be merciful to him. God was merciful to him, and so he went home justified rather than the other (Luke 18:14). So here is a biblical term to describe what happens to a repentant covenant member who is finally getting his act together. He is justified. Now it might be replied (and should be) that this does not do justice to the other usages of the word justification in Scripture. Exactly so, which is why I think we ought not to be trying to come up with biblical phrases or uses only. We should use terms which are consistent with Scripture, based on Scripture, and are subordinate to Scripture. We do not pick and choose, but rather harmonize them all. A man can be justified in one sense and not in another. This was the condition of the Pharisee, who went home that day unjustified. The other man had been circumcised, and was able to worship in the temple. He was justified, right? In one sense. But then he went home justified, and we may assume that he had not arrived that way.

Some might want to say that we have no need to use the word converted of such a man which misleads people, because it suggests he never really was in Christ in the first place. But sometimes this is precisely what we need to suggest. Being in Christ is not just one thing that is operated by just one on/off switch. The hypocrite is in Christ in one sense, and he is not in Christ in another. Part of our problem is that we want to nail too many things down. Tares are in the wheat field, but they do not partake of ontological wheatness. But when the pietists beat this drum too loudly, they need to be reminded that the fruitless branches in John 15 do partake of ontological branchness.

God is perfect, but He is no perfectionist. He likes to mess with our heads.

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