Nearly half of the founding pastors of the PCA were educated at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. Among the faculty of that school, no one was more eminently biblical in his theology and more warmly evangelical in his faith than Dr. William Childs Robinson. Serving first as a pastor for five years in Gettysburg, Pa. before taking his post at Columbia, Dr. Robinson served there as professor of church history for an impressive 41 years. Dr. Robbie, as he was affectionately known, was not just a professor of church history but was also a mentor to men like D. James Kennedy, Paul Settle, Jim Baird, and Morton Smith. Dr. Robbie was thus a real and direct influence upon the early life of our denomination. A prolific author, his articles appeared in The Presbyterian, The Evangelical Quarterly, The Christian Observer and, for decades, on the pages of The Presbyterian Journal.
The following article was not only one of his first published works, it was also characteristic of his life’s work. [The Presbyterian (12 February 1925): 6-7, 30.]
—Wayne Sparkman, director PCA Historical Center
One of my college classmates said, in my hearing, “Well, I have thought through the doctrine of justification by faith.” It is the conviction of the writer that one cause for so much of our present loose theological thinking and for the diminution of the vitality and power of present Christianity is that too few of us have thought out just what this cardinal doctrine of the Reformation is. We have not the courage of our convictions, the transforming force in our lives, the faith that mocks the flames, which the Reformers had, because we have not felt the graciousness and blessedness of their doctrine of justification by faith.
We have gotten in the habit of using this term as a phrase to conjure with, a shibboleth, a form of words instead of taking the time to grasp its real meaning. And of all terms, this one, when used as a phrase only, is the one most capable of misinterpretation. This false interpretation can come either from loose thinking (or lack of thinking), or from the studied effort to deceive. The English words, “justification by faith,” can be easily used to mean the direct opposite of the Reformation doctrine of justification. This is because of the indefiniteness of that preposition “by.” A speaker or writer can use that “by” as meaning, “by the power of,” “by the virtue of,” “by the grace of,” as easily as another can use it to mean, “by means of” or “by the instrumentality of.” Even historians of the Reformation, in discussing Luther’s heart acceptance of the doctrine of justification by faith, show a woeful misapprehension of the meaning of the term.
Many today are using the term, “justification by faith,” to express their belief that we are justified on the ground of faith. That is, that faith itself, and our own faith, is accepted by God as the ethical basis or meritorious ground on which he declares us righteous. Faith, then, is a substitute for obedience. Faith is taken to mean religious heroism—it is the seed of the new life which God is pleased to accept in place of the perfect life which formerly he demanded. Faith is made the basis of our judgment. According to this interpretation, the apostle of modernism says that God deals with a man, not on the basis of what he has done, or even what he is, but on the basis of the thing the man has set his heart upon, the direction of his life, the ideal which masters him. In accord with this interpretation, the eyes of men are turned in on themselves toward the examination of their own faith—be sure that you have faith in God like Jesus had. Scrutinize, perfect your faith, develop your faith, for your faith as the sum of your hopes and ideals and vital principle and life direction, is to be the ground of your justification. This form of reasoning makes the basis and ground of our justification to inhere in us—it is our faith (as the sum of our hopes, etc.), which is accepted by God as the equivalent of righteousness. We save ourselves if only we can get the right kind of faith, the right amount of it; Jesus’ rebuke of this attitude with the words, that if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you can remove mountains, is forgotten. Furthermore, this meaning, read into the apostolic doctrine of justification by faith, is the opposite of what that term was used by the Reformers to mean.
The Real Meaning of Justification By Faith
The real meaning of justification by faith, as that term was used by the Protestants in the Reformation, and the real meaning of that doctrine as expounded in Scripture, and expressed in Protestant Confessions, can be made clear by noticing the real biblical attitude of faith, the ethical basis of justification, and the graciousness of the entire process.
The biblical attitude of faith, negatively, is a denial that man by his works or anything in himself contributes to his justification. Justification is “to him that worketh not”; that is, to him who does not want to work, does not intend to work, who acknowledges that he and his works are sinful and unrighteous. Faith, as Paul uses it, is the algebraic formula for not working — negatively, it is equivalent to saying that man contributes nothing to his justification. The attitude of justifying faith is seeking to be found in Him, not having one’s own righteousness which is of the law. It is a recognition that we are saved, not of ourselves and not of our works, for by the works of the law shall no flesh, be justified—in himself every man stands guilty before God. And every atom of human sufficiency and pride and boasting is excluded. “Merit lives from man to man, but not, O God, from man to thee.”
Positively, the attitude of justifying faith is magnifying God, it is God-centered. Dr. Geerhardus Vos, whose careful thought the writer has freely used in this discussion, defines the attitude of faith as the unlimited willingness to let God do all the saving, a recognition of divine monergism. The attitude of faith is not looking at itself as though it were a new virtue substituted for the old, but it is looking to the object of faith. Justifying faith is faith towards or into Jesus Christ. It is resting on him as the limpet clings to the rock. It is being found in him. Faith denies all hope and trust in the man himself, or in the substance of the faith in itself, and rests men on the unchanging grace and character of God. Faith is the attitude of giving all the glory to God. Again, as to the ethical basis of justification — the ground on account of which God declares a man righteous— Protestant justification by faith offers not itself. Our Westminster Confession of Faith for three hundred years has been denying this “modernist” idea that God imputes faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to men as their righteousness. If we take the time to investigate justification according to the Aristotelian causes, it will save us many upsets. According to this analysis, faith is the instrumental cause—the means, the instrument, the human condition—of justification. But faith is not the efficient cause—for that is the righteousness of God; it is not the material cause—for that is the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ; it is not the formal cause—for that is the righteousness of another (in distinction from one’s own righteousness); it is not the final cause—which is the salvation of souls and the glory of God. Faith is taking Jesus Christ with the naked hand of the heart. Faith is the human condition, the receiving, but that which it receives is the meritorious ground of justification. And this ground or basis is the righteousness of God which is built up of the material furnished by the entire humiliation of Christ—his satisfaction of the precepts and penalties of the law of God, by his human life, obedience, suffering and death. Protestant faith is receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness; and Protestant justification by faith is God, on the occasion of man’s act of faith, imputing to that man Christ’s obedience and satisfaction as his righteousness, and so receiving the believer as righteous in his sight. The saving virtue is not faith as a new virtue, but the virtues and sufferings of Christ, our Substitute. Modernistic justification rests on what the believer is or aspires to be; Protestant justification rests on what Christ is and what he has done for the believer.
Faith is Entirely Gratuitous
Finally, justification by faith, as far as the sinner is concerned, is entirely gratuitous. “We are justified freely by his grace.” It is gratuitous because even faith, the instrumental cause, is the free gift of God. Faith is our coming to Christ, but no man cometh save as the Father draws him. We only call Jesus Lord by the Holy Spirit. We come to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, but flesh and blood reveals it not unto us, that is done by the Father in heaven. We know the Son only as he willeth to reveal himself. It is given unto us to believe on him, and our total salvation, even with reference to faith, is the gift of God. Further, while the process of salvation has been so worked out by the wisdom of the Trinity that God is justified in that process, and it is just to Christ to accept as righteous those who are in him; nevertheless, it is entirely gracious of God in relation to the sinner to justify him. God is declared just in his nature and government in justifying the ungodly by faith. But the whole plan of redemption is gracious as far as the sinner is concerned. It is pure, undeserved love that leads God to provide a Saviour for sinful men. It is grace that provides the Righteous One to work out in man’s stead a righteousness for them. It is of his graciousness toward men that God the Son takes human nature and by years of humiliation and obedience and the depths of agony works out that robe of righteousness with which to clothe the sinner. It is gracious on the part of God the Father to willingly accept the righteousness of another in lieu of the righteousness which the sinner is unable to offer in himself. If justification as its basis be the man or his works, or his outlooks, it is of debt, not of grace. But with one accord, the Scriptures proclaim a salvation that is of the Lord and a justification by faith that is of grace, grace, grace to the utmost — grace to the unrighteous, whereby they are declared righteous in Christ — righteous as clothed in his spotless robes of righteousness.
Now as we cut away all centers, or subsidiary centers, of reliance on ourselves and our sinful hearts, and as we rest entirely and alone on the grace of God, and on the God of grace we place ourselves in faith’s true attitude—we open our hearts for the streams of living water to flood our souls. As we see that we are saved entirely by the graciousness of God, that we rest entirely on Jesus Christ, and are accepted in toto for what he has done for us, the ocean of gratitude for this grace rises in a tidal wave that has real volume in lieu of the tiny, intermittent rivulets of thanks that have been trickling from our hearts. As we deny self and rest alone on Jesus Christ, we realize the appropriate relationship in which close fellowship may exist, we draw really close to him, we cling indeed, we hide in the riven rock ,we seek to be crushed to his bosom, and in the warmth and depth of living fellowship with the ever-present loving Redeemer we begin to live his life and manifest the reality of his power, the blessedness of his grace.