In my experience, proponents of the Federal Vision often say that their detractors have misunderstood their position, that they're intentionally misrepresenting their position, ignoring the Federal Vision's clear affirmations of orthodox doctrine, or accusing the Federal Vision of willful deception. In my view, however, proponents of the Federal Vision are not being deceptive. They have made themselves clear. And my concern is not with what they haven't said, but with what they have said so plainly. In the interest of honesty and clarity, I offer this post attempting to interact with an essay written by Rich Lusk, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Please read the following post, Future Justification to the Doers of the Law by Rich Lusk. Then, come back and read the following critique.
1. Lusk denies that the law requires "perfect" obedience. Lusk writes, "Let’s start by unpacking what it means to keep the law. The law simply did not require perfect obedience." James Buchanan, in his classic work on the doctrine of justification, states, "It may be safely affirmed that almost all the errors, which have prevailed on the subject of justification, may be traced ultimately to erroneous, or defective, views of the law and justice" (Doctrine of Justification 268). Is it accurate to say that God's law did not require "no murder" at all? Was murder not to be strictly avoided in the Old Covenant? Could we really say that as long as someone murdered but offered sacrifices for their murder, that person did not break God's law?
2. Lusk denies that "sin" breaks the law. Lusk says, "If one sinned, one did not automatically become a 'law breaker' except in a highly technical sense." The problem with this is that the New Testament appears to teach that the only way we know we're law-breakers is that we've actually broken the law. Romans 3:20 says, "Through the law comes the knowledge of sin." 1 John 3:4 says, "Sin is lawlessness." You know you're a murderer because you've murdered, a liar because you've lied, etc. Moreover, how can something be called a "sin" (missing the mark) unless there is a clear law-standard by which that sin can be measured? Lusk would say that such a standard is highly technical, abstract, and moralistic, and that sin does not break the law.
At this point, we need to reflect on what Lusk has already said in his essay. He says the law of God is not absolute. According to Lusk, the law does not require perfect obedience, and sins are not transgressions of the law of God. The law is, therefore, on Lusk's view, "soft" and "flexible." Law keeping, which is identical to covenant keeping on Lusk's model, is about a relationship of "loyalty to the Lawgiver." The law is a law of grace (law is a law of gospel), about relationships, not laws. This soft-law doctrine is the foundation of every historic heresy on justification. It was taught by Richard Baxter along with many others who denied the orthodox doctrine of justification. This position allows God to call imperfect (sinful) human obedience "righteous." It also logically removes the need for the imputed righteousness of Jesus, both in its passive and active forms. How can there be a need of a death penalty for law-breaking (passive obedience), if sin is not law-breaking? And, how can there be any need of Christ's active obedience to satisfy divine justice, if the law doesn't require perfect obedience? It also eliminates the Reformed doctrine of "sola fide," which teaches that "faith alone" justifies, not because the law requires faith to satisfy justice, but because faith is the grace that lays hold of Christ and His righteousness, which alone satisfies God's justice. On the biblical and Reformed view, faith justifies, not because it is "just" but because it takes hold of Christ's "justness."
To support his doctrine of justification by imperfect works, Lusk cites David, Elizabeth, and Zecharias as biblical examples of people being called "righteous" on the basis of imperfect obedience (1 Kgs 15:5; Lk 1:6). Reformed exegetes, however, teach that those individuals were called "righteous" not because their imperfect obedience measured up to God's law and standard of justice. Rather, they were called "righteous" because their good works of covenant faithfulness gave evidence that they had already been united to Christ and His righteousness. David spoke clearly of Christ's imputed righteousness (Rom 4:6-8; Ps 32:1-2) as the sole basis of his justification, and of every man's justification. Covenant faithfulness is mere evidence of justification. Covenant faithfulness is not what constituted David, Elizabeth, and Zecharias righteous before God. This is the difference between Lusk and historic biblical Reformed orthodoxy.
Lusk's denial of absolute law and strict justice lays the groundwork for justification (justice) that accepts soft and sinful human obedience. Soft justice does not need the perfect and sinless righteous obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ to be satisfied. It's a flexible and relational kind of justice that justifies imperfect obedience (calls evil good?), as long as it stays in a loyal relationship.
3. Lusk says that Romans 2:13 teaches justification by works. Here Lusk correctly notes that John Calvin taught that Romans 2:13 is a hypothetical statement which says that justification by works is hypothetically possible, if one keeps the law of God perfectly. Romans 2:13 reads, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified." Calvin interprets this to mean: "You can be justified by works, if you can keep the law perfectly."
Romans 1-3 makes it clear that no one can keep the law perfectly. Romans 3:10-12 says, "None is righteous [justified], no not one . . . no one does good, not even one." Calvin's reading fits the most naturally with the structure of Romans 1-3, which is about the fact that all are sinners under the law and that none can be justified by the law. Romans 3:23 says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." On Calvin's view, since no one can keep the law perfectly (Rom 1-3a), then we need to be justified by an alien and imputed righteousness (Rom 3b-4). Romans 4:5-6 says, "And to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness . .. God counts righteousness apart from works." This guards Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone on the ground of Christ's righteousness.
Lusk, however, says that Romans 2:13 teaches that human beings are justified in God's sight and before the bar of God's soft justice by their personal works of faithful (imperfect, sinful) obedience. This interpretation seems to make Romans 2:13 contradict Romans 3:20, which says, "For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight since through the law comes the knowledge of sin," and with Romans 3:28, "For we hold that one is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law."
4. Lusk teaches that our personal works of righteousness must be added to Christ's righteousness for justification. In the section entitled "The White Robes of Righteousness," Lusk teaches that we are justified in the first moment of justification by faith alone. He writes, "This [first moment of justification] is the beginning of Joshua’s justification. But if Joshua is to remain justified — that is, if the garments he has received are not to become re-soiled with his iniquity — he must be faithful. Thus, initial justification is by faith alone; subsequent justifications include obedience" (emphasis is mine).
Thus, Christ's work alone is not sufficient to satisfy divine justice on Lusk's model. Christ's work is unique and important, but God's justice also requires the works of believers to be satisfied. This would seem to imply that Christ is not our substitute or federal head in justification, since His works do not substitute for our works in the economy of God's justice. Rather, Christ's works and our works combine to satisfy God's justice together. Thus, Christ does not appear to be a substitute, but a cooperative agent whose work is important, but not sufficient for justification.
5. Lusk expressly rejects the classic distinction between "justification by faith alone" and "final vindication by works." This is probably the most important paragraph of Lusk's essay because it expresses his error plainly. I cite it here in full:
"In James 2, “justification” cannot be referring to a demonstration of justification, e.g., justification does and cannot mean something like 'show to be justified.' Rather, James has in view the same kind of justification as Paul — forensic, soteric justification. Good works justify persons in James 2, not faith or one’s status as a justified sinner. James is not telling his readers how to “justify their justification” or how to “give evidence of a true and lively faith” . Instead he says their persons will not be justified by faith alone, but also by good works of obedience they have done. The use of the preposition “by” is important since it indicates a sort of dual instrumentality in justification. In other words, in some sense, James is speaking of a justification in which faith and works combine together to justify . Future justification is according to one’s life pattern. No one dare claim these works to be meritorious, but they are necessary. There is congruence between the life we live and the destiny we will receive" (emphasis is mine).
Notice a couple of things about Lusk's paragraph.
a. Orthodox Reformed exegetes have said that the context of James 2 requires an interpretation which distinguishes what James means by the word "justify" and what Paul means by "justify." The GK word "justify" can mean "constitute righteous" or "demonstrate righteous" (John Murray). In both the OT and the Septuagint, the Hebrew word “justify” (צדק), and the LXX translation (δικαιοω), refer to “constituting righteous” (e.g., in Exodus 23:7). The same Hebrew-Greek pair appears again in Jeremiah 3:11 and refers to “demonstrating righteous.” Similarly, Paul refers to being "constituted righteous" on the basis of Christ's righteousness (see Rom 3:26, 28; 4:4-8). James refers to believers being "demonstrated righteous," or proven to be righteous, by means of good works (Jas 2:24). This rendering of justification as "demonstrative righteousness" in James 2:24 is based on the fact that James uses "demonstrative" terms like "show me your faith;" "I will show you my faith" (2:18); "You see that faith was active along with works" (2:22), and "you see that a person is justified by works" (2:24). In this context, works justify (or prove, or vindicate) a previous justification by faith on the ground of Christ's works alone.
b. Failing to recognize the distinction between "demonstrative" justification and "constitutive" justification leads Lusk to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Contrary to the Reformed understanding of the heart of the gospel, it is logically consistent for Lusk to affirm that both faith and works are necessary for justification. Faith and works together are needed to meet the requirements of God's justice. He writes "the use of the preposition 'by' indicates a sort of dual instrumentality in justification." He goes on to say, "James is speaking of a justification in which faith and works combine together to justify." This is an express denial of justification by faith alone. The Reformed WCF 11.2 says, "Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification," which is the plain teaching of many passages of Scripture (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:15-16, 21, 3:21-25; 5:3-4; Phil 3:9, etc.). Paul teaches that to deny justification by faith alone is something for which one is "accursed" (Gal 1:8-9; 2:15-16).
6. Lusk expressly denies that God's "strict" justice will be applied at the last day. This material is found under Lusk's heading, "A Gracious Justice." If justice is "gracious" and not "strict" on the last day, then on what basis does God send sinners to hell? Is it a mere soft justice that condemns sinners (goats: Matt 25) on the last day? Are there two standards of justice on judgment day, one for sheep (soft and gracious) and one for goats (strict)? Lusk says, "God will use “fatherly justice” in the final judgment, not “absolute justice.” He will judge us the way parents evaluate their child’s art work, or the way a new husband assesses the dinner his beloved wife has made. The standard will be soft and generous because God is merciful."
I submit that this is Lusk's most basic and serious error. He does not affirm God's perfectly holy and strict justice and he denies that God rules and judges in accordance with it. This denial of strict law and strict justice allows Lusk to say that God accepts imperfect works in justification, to deny the need for Christ's imputed active obedience, and thus to deny the need for justification by faith alone, which lays hold of the righteousness of another. The comfort offered in this system is not that Christ alone has satisfied God's justice. Rather, the comfort is that God accepts and justifies sinful obedience as long as you remain loyal to Jesus. "He will judge us the way parents evaluate their child's art. . . . the standard will be soft and generous." We don't have to worry about our sins because they don't break the law. God judges us softly.
7. Lusk weakly claims that he isn't teaching works-salvation. He knows he has opened himself to the charges that I make above and so he provides three reasons that it is not so. A careful reader will observe, however, that Lusk does not support his reasons, nor does he show how his reasons are consistent with the model he has offered. Let's take a look at them one at a time.
a. "First, the soteriology I have offered is still thoroughly monergistic" (Lusk). But does an affirmation of monergism adequately remove the charge of teaching a meritorious salvation? Isn't an affirmation of Christ's perfect justice-satisfying obedience also necessary? If one's imperfect works can be said actually to satisfy God's (flexible) law and justice, then why aren't those works deserving of reward, since they actually conform to God's just standard? Additionally, "monergism" and "compatibilism" go together in Augustinian systems. That is, monergists teach that God's determination of human actions is compatible with those actions being either praise-worthy or blame-worthy. Since Lusk is a thoroughgoing monergist, then he acknowledges that sinners monergistically sin, and their sin is worthy and deserving of (demeritorious of) condemnation. How then does monergism keep Lusk from a system of works righteousness and personal merit when it comes to personal obedience? Mongergism is compatible with, and is in fact the basis of, responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness. So, on Lusk's system, why doesn't God's monergistic determination of obedience in the elect (his gifts to them) for justification make them praise-worthy, deserving, meritorious of their justification? Classical Reformed orthodoxy never teaches that monergism alone eliminates the deserving character of good works. Rather, justification is non-meritorious because Christ has wholly accomplished justice for the elect. The good works of believers contribute nothing to God's justice because justice has already been "filled up" and completely satisfied by the obedience of Christ. Therefore, God's justice requires no works from believers, which means the good works of believers do not deserve justification from God.
b. "Second, I would insist on the utter sufficiency and uniqueness of Christ’s self-offering on the cross" (Lusk). But in what sense is Christ's death "sufficient?" Lusk has taught that it's not sufficient for justification, but that our own works must be added. How is it "unique?" What did it actually do? If the law doesn't require perfect obedience, then why did Christ need to die at all? Lusk's system seems to remove the *need* of Christ's sin-offering, since the law does not require perfection. The plain statements Lusk has already made about soft justice, flexible laws, and continuing in justification by imperfect (sinful) works seem to remove the need of the satisfaction of justice by Christ's death. Therefore, it is difficult to see how Christ's death is sufficient in any sense and in what sense he means that it is unique.
c. "Third, the “softer” standard simply seems to be the teaching of Scripture." But I have argued that this is not the case. The Bible says "sin is lawlessness" (1 Jn 3:4; cf. Rom 3:10-20). The Bible does not teach that the law is soft, mild, easy, and accepting of sinful actions. Classic Reformed orthodoxy has recognized that our holy God is not a God of soft justice. He requires perfect obedience to His law because God is Himself perfect.
So, what do we make of all of this?
Lusk's basic problem is that he denies God's strict "justice" on the last day. On Lusk's model, God does not require perfect obedience to His law in order to say that someone is "just." God accepts imperfect (sinful) obedience as meeting the standards of His justice. To reiterate, one implication of this is that Christ's perfect satisfaction of the law is not a strict requirement of God's justice (sin does not make one a law-breaker). Additionally, Christ's work cannot be said to be sufficient to satisfy God's justice, since imperfect human works of obedience must be added to Christ's work in order to remain in a state of justification. This is Lusk's central and most serious theological error. He eliminates the strict necessity of Christ's death and He denies the sufficiency of Christ's death to satisfy God's justice. Paul says, "If justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose" (Gal 2:21).
One of the most practical effects of this teaching, it seems to me, is that we can't have any basis on which to trust Christ alone to completely satisfy God's justice, since Lusk teaches that our works must be added to Christ's works. We should trust Christ's work, but we must also trust our works, since our works are required by God's soft standard of justice in order to be justified. This has significant implications for assurance of salvation. If our works must be added to Christ's works to meet the requirements of God's justice, then there is no basis on which to trust Christ and His work alone to meet the requirements of God's justice. Our assurance cannot, therefore, be based on Christ alone. Assurance must rest on Christ, but it must also *rest* on and *trust* our own obedience, since God requires continued obedience to fulfill His just requirements for justification and acceptance before Him.