Justification: imputation, and final basis

Today, I was reading a review, the particulars of which are not relevant, but the author speaks of “N. T. Wright’s brand of the New Perspective, in explaining justification: . . . . imputation of Christ’s righteousness is refuted; . . . and there is a final eschatological justification based on the faithful life lived.”

That reminded me of the review I wrote a couple of years ago, of N. T. Wright’s book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. That review has not (yet?) been published, but I have just added the text of what I wrote to a relatively new section on this site (“Book Reviews,” under “Documents”). You don’t need to read the review to make sense of this post. But I want to make a few brief remarks about justification, some of which may also show up in my review. So I mention it now, though I did not reread the review before adding it to my site.


Wright has certainly made some strong negative statements about the classical Reformation  doctrine of the imputation of justification, but he seems to have misunderstood the intent of that doctrine (if I may be so bold as to say so, regarding so fine a biblical scholar). That being said, I myself began to use the term “imputation” very seldom, for a long time before Wright expressed his dislike of it. For years, I had appropriated B. B. Warfield’s scheme of a threefold imputation: (1) Adam’s sin to those in him, (2) believers’ sin to Christ, and (3) Christ’s righteousness to us. Luther had spoken of the first as our “alien guilt” and the third as our “alien righteousness,” but I grew dissatisfied with the “alienness” in that description. Increasingly, I came to view the whole situation covenantally and to think of our imlication in Adam’s sin, and then in Christ’s righteousness, as the fruit of covenant solidarity. We all start life spiritually dead by virtue of our solidarity with Adam, but we become spiritually alive through union with Christ.

Having thought and spoken of human guilt and righteousness in this way for some years, I was prepared to be somewhat sympathetic with Wright’s concerns, while not being satisfied with his reconstruction. In Michael Bird’s dialogue with Wright, at the ETS annual meeting whose theme was “justification,” Bird suggested the term “incorporated righteousness,” as better than “imputed righteousness.” That terminology represents very nicely the direction my own mind had taken, emphasizing the centrality of our union with Christ in this, as in other aspects of salvation.

That is where I am now in my thought and language, but I welcome comment from others who have given attention to this matter in their own theological construction.

The final basis of justification

In 1974/75, I enrolled in a seminar on “Justification” with Norman Shepherd, at Westminster. It was a very stimulating course, in which participants selected sections of the biblical text and presented their findings in regard to justification. In those days, Shepherd was already speaking about “a certain instrumentality of works in justification,” and I remember struggling to get a clear grasp on what he was proposing, and to assess its correctness. After I graduated  from the seminary, they went through a lengthy and painful process of examination of Prof. Shepherd, which generated significant tensions within the faculty, I gathered. In the end, Shepherd was released and moved on to pastoral ministry in a Reformed church. I have had correspondence with him more recently, as I have grown more sympathetic with his intent. It has now become quite common for evangelical theologians to acknowledge that justification is through faith  but that the final judgment is according to works. I have wondered whether Shepherd might have fared better now than he did in the 70s, but it is impossible to know.

In my own reading of the NT, and of Paul in particular, it has become increasingly clear to me that, for Paul, the issue was not so much faith versus works, as grace versus works. The critical factor is ground, rather than instrument, especially when the instrument is seen to be God’s gift to us. I was helped to see this when my colleague, Edmund Neufeld, gave me the chance to read work he was doing on justification in the synoptic Gospels. That work was eventually published as “The Gospel in The Gospels: Answering the Question ‘What Must I Do To Be Saved?’ From The Synoptics.” JETS 51/2 (June 2008):267-96. It is a very fine paper, with which I heartily agree, and it demonstrates the prominence given to our deeds in statements about our justification or vindication, in the Synoptics.

N. T. Wright himself has acknowledged that he overstated himself when speaking of the role of our works in final justification. It was certainly never his intention to resurrect the classical Roman Catholic doctrine of double justification. There, justification is infused in our initial justification, through faith, but we are then enabled to do meritorious works, and those are instrumental in our final justification. At points in Wright’s work, it sounded as though he was echoing that doctrine, but it is now clear that this was not what he wanted to say.

The statements from dialogues between Roman Catholic theologians and Protestants, in various venues, have struck me as rather confusing. On the one hand, many Roman Catholics are anxious to assert that they agree with Protestants that justification is by grace through faith, but Rome has never officially rejected Trent’s way of speaking. In that regard, I think the Reformation is not yet over, though I am encouraged with more recent developments.

Among evangelicals, however, there now seems to be widespread comfort with reference to final judgment as according to our works, while not attributing to those works any instrumentality in justification. The “not guilty” verdict made by God concerning us, when we are united to Christ by grace through faith, is made on the ground of our union with Christ, and that same verdict will be pronounced at the end, on that same ground. Nonetheless, in the lives of those whom God declares “not guilty,” at the “last day,” their works done in the flesh will bear testimony to the righteousness of Christ that had been practically at work in them, through their mutual indwelling. Justification is forensic, and needs to be distinguished from sanctification as a matter of ongoing experience, but the two cannot be separated. The Roman Catholic concern about antinomianism in the Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” is a healthy one, and we should share it. But we must not compromise the purely gracious nature of our salvation in Christ, from beginning to end, a truth that has not been well taught to millions of Catholic lay people around the world.

Soli deo gloria!


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

12 replies on “Justification: imputation, and final basis”

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I’m a new commenter and am moved to respond to your post. Thank you for the very lucid and concise explanation of recent developments of these issues. I spent about a year recently reading large minority of the relevant literature to the NPP issue and also appreciate Michael Bird’s general analysis and interaction with Wright and also specifically his term “incorporated righteousness.” Though I’m a novice, I’ve tried working a bit through these issues from a slightly different angle here

Thanks and God Bless

Hi Terry,
I wanted to follow-up my previous comment with a question, after having read through your post again. Above you state, “Justification is forensic, and needs to be distinguished from sanctification as a matter of ongoing experience, but the two cannot be separated.” It seems that you are assuming a discourse of systematic theology in how you are using the terms ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, it seems to me that ‘justification’ is not merely ‘forensic’ and that the final analysis needs to account for that. So I guess my question is whether you still maintain justification in solely the “forensic” category (like B.B. Warfield, etc.) or if you see a broader category for the word group in Scripture, as might be implied in the term “incorporated righteousness”.

In Christ

Thanks Carl. I continue to believe that justification is primarily forensic. It is God’s declaration that we are “not guilty.” The question that I hear addressed by the term “incorporated righteousness” is: “Why does God declare sinners who believe in Jesus not guilty?” What makes this not a “legal fiction”? The answer is that God’s verdict is made because believers in Christ are united to Christ, the Righteous One. With him we are buried and rise again, dying to sin and rising again to new life. Indwelt by the Spirit in/with whom Christ baptizes us, we live in Christ and he in us. The Father sees us in this integral union with Christ and pronounces us “not guilty.”

Because of our union with Christ, he lives in and through us, producing in us, by his sanctifying work, a new obedience which pleases God because it proceeds from faith. This obedience never becomes the ground of God’s verdict, but it makes the final “not guilty” verdict which God pronounces concerning us not nonsense. Both justification and sanctification are explicable only within the framework of our union with Christ.

I sense from your question that you may attribute a less forensic sense to justification than I have posited. Do you want to describe your understanding, and perhaps indicate how it differs from mine?

Thank you for the response. Sorry for not responding sooner…

I was straining before to figure out exactly how I wanted to word my question and was probably a bit misleading. Whether or not it is forensic might not be the issue for me. Rather, it’s whether or not God’s declaration is merely declarative with respect to us – “legal fiction” as it’s been termed – or whether it also has direct truth-value with respect to us.

So, I gladly agree with your first paragraph. Where I’ve come to disagree (I’m still exploring and open to correction) is whether obedience becomes the ground of God’s verdict. I’m not so sure the answer is “No”. Passages like Matt. 12:33-36, Romans 2:13 (I know many see this as hypothetical), and James 2:21-26 (in agreement with Doug Moo, Scot McKnight, and Richard Bauckham) seem to quite clearly expect judgment by works. Lying underneath this is a certain understanding of works-that-justify: it’s certainly not mere works of the (Mosaic) law but the Father-like perfection demanded by Jesus and pointed to by the Law (Matt. 5:17-48). It’s these works that are only possible by a faith-(re)orientation to God’s rule rather than working in rebellion against His kingdom – not acknowledging or acting as if God is God (and as you well put it, it’s a matter of “grace vs. works”). There shouldn’t be a problem with this from a Reformed perspective – these works are given by God anyway (Eph. 2:9-10) so there is no ground for boasting. The posts I linked to in my first comment attempt to set the framework for this.

Given this, I suspect there’s a sense in which “justification” is at times used to refer to one’s action rather than God’s judgment although God’s final judgment is still the frame of reference (references escape me right now). So, it’s still forensic but not merely forensic. At the same time, some use “forensic” to refer solely to imputation rather than court judgment in general. In that sense I think it’s definitely more than forensic.

With this, I’m a bit confused at your response. The way I understand it, what Warfield meant by “alien righteousness” is precisely our incorporated-ness with Christ, so I’m confused as to why you grew dissatisfied with it. Is it simply inadequate terminology?

Thank you Carl. As you suggest, my dissatisfaction with Warfield’s three-fold imputation is terminological rather than conceptual.

I think I understand the factors with which you are grappling, in regard to God’s final judgment. To speak of our deeds as “ground” makes me nervous, but perhaps that is a term with a range of uses. So long as final justification is monergistic (not synergistic, as it becomes if there is anything meritorious in our works, as per Tridentine Catholicism), and provided the source of all our righteousness is God’s doing, and hence to the praise of his glory alone, as I hear you asserting, I think that we are in fundamental agreement. How best to describe this is something I continue to sort out, as I sense you do.

FYI: The paper by Edmund Neufeld referenced by Dr. Tiessen can be found online (in PDF form) here:

I first read Dr. Neufeld’s paper a few years ago, when he first presented this paper at Providence Seminary. I share his concerns against “easy believism,” and against the downplaying of the demands of Christ (apparent in many circles); nevertheless, I still struggle with the general direction of this paper.

Even though the Synoptic Gospel records do not carefully draw out the theological distinction between “faith” compared to “works” – since that is not the goal for which these records were written – I believe that this distinction is still very important and useful. I believe that “faith” in the Christ of the Gospel records must logically precede any kind of righteous “obedience” to His demands.

This is the overall purpose for which the Gospel records were written – that we would know who Christ is (The Lord and Anointed One, who ministered on earth, taught, died as a sacrifice, rose again, then commissioned His Church through His apostles). We must rest our hope upon this overall message of Who Christ Is, and what He has done, and believe upon Him in our hearts, if we are ever going to rightly respond to the particular demands of Jesus in the Gospel records.

If anyone simply focuses on those portions of the Gospel records in which Christ makes demands [these passages are the focus of Dr. Neufeld’s paper], and then tries to “do these things” – thinking that is how they are saved – while missing the bigger picture of “Who is Christ,” and failing to trust and rest upon the truth of what God has already accomplished in Christ – then I would argue that such “obedience” is not really the kind of obedience that either Christ or the Gospel writers were seeking. I would argue that the Gospel writers (and Christ Himself) were seeking the obedience that comes from faith in Christ. Even though this is not “explicit” I would argue that this perspective of obedience is implicit, based on the overall purpose of the Gospel records.

I am currently preaching through the Gospel record of Matthew, each week. I am frequently reminded of the need to see the “big picture” of Who Christ Is, and of what He has accomplished, whenever I look at Jesus’ hard demands. In preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, for example, I do not call people to simply “do these things,” in order to gain eternal life. But rather, I try to continually call people to look at what this Sermon on the Mount shows us about Who Christ Is – and on the basis of that I call people to believe upon Him as the Lord who has come, and who has now fulfilled His own Law perfectly, and who has died as a ransom for sinners, and who is now Risen as Lord and Saviour – and in view of these truths of who Christ is, let us diligently seek to follow His will by faith.

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