Horton: Wright and Justification

26 April 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michael Horton’s massive systematic theology The Christian Faith.  The plan is to write a full-scale critical review for The Confessional Presbyterian.  There’s certainly a lot with which to interact.  So far, my impression (after nearly 650 pages) is mixed.  There’s much good to be said, but also some frustrating aspects.  For the details, you’re going to have to wait.

Today I just wanted to comment on chapter 19, “Forensic Aspects of Union with Christ: Justification and Adoption.”  Thus far this chapter is one of the best.  Horton ably lays out the Reformed doctrine of justification and its biblical basis.  He also interacts with critics of this doctrine, chief of whom is N. T. Wright.

Wright alleges that the Reformed doctrine of justification posits the imputation of God’s righteousness.  Horton replies:

However, it is crucial to point out that it has never been the Reformation position that God’s righteousness is imputed.  First, this assumes that righteousness is a substance or a commodity that is transferred from one person to another, rather than a legal status.  Second, missing from Wright’s courtroom setting is the third party: the mediator who, as representative head, fulfills the law and merits for himself and his covenant heirs the verdict of “righteous” or “just” before God.  Although the one who fulfilled the terms of the law covenant as the human servant is also the divine Lord, it is his active obedience rather than the essential divine attribute of righteousness that is credited to believers.  (632).

A few pages further, Horton discusses the relationship between justification and holy living in the theology of Wright and other NPP scholars:

N. T. Wright pleads, “If Christians could only get this [doctrine of justification] right, they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practicing it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it.”  Thus, the gospel is something to be done by us, not simply an astonishing and disruptive announcement of what has already been achieved once and for all on our behalf.  Faith and holiness belong together, Wright properly insists, but the only way to keep them together, he seems to suggest, is to conflate them.  (641).

Essentially this boils down to a confusion of justification and sanctification, or, in more basic terms, law and gospel.  Horton rightly points out that Reformation theology has derived an ethic from justification (640), but it has not infused ethics into justification.  In the words of the hymn beloved by Warfield, when it comes to justification, we must “cast our deadly doing down.”