We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself—in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. —N.T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective, p. 261
In the past few years, the British bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has emerged as an icon of biblical theology around the world. His excellent work on the resurrection of Christ has influenced many people including his own country’s most famous philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew, who has converted to deism. Wright is also known, however, for being one of the chief architects of the so-called new perspective on Paul, in which he recasts the doctrine of justification in such a way as to transcend the historic dispute between Roman Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism. In a sense, Wright says, “A pox on both your houses,” claiming that both Rome and the Reformation misunderstood and distorted the biblical view of justification. In his response to John Piper’s critique of his work, Wright drips patronizing disdain for Piper and for those who embrace the traditional Protestant view of justification. He is critical of theological traditions that he thinks miss the biblical point.
In the course of debate, one of the most effective and fallacious arguments often used is called the “straw man” fallacy. The value of a scarecrow is that it is a counterfeit human being designed to scare away a few crows. It is an effective device, but not nearly as effective as a real farmer patrolling his fields with a shotgun. The farmer made of straw is not nearly as formidable as the real one. This is usually the case in the difference between the authentic and the counterfeit. The straw man fallacy occurs when one creates a false view of his opponent’s position in a distorted caricature by which he then easily dismantles that position in total refutation.
One of the statements that N.T. Wright employs, using this same stratagem, is the statement that “we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith.” To intimate that Protestant orthodoxy believes that we are justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith is the king of all straw men. It is the Goliath of scarecrows, the King Kong of straw man fallacies. In other words, it is a whopper. I am aware of no theologian in the history of the Reformed tradition who believes or argues that a person can be justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith. This is a pure and simple distortion of the Reformed tradition.
In Wright’s statement we see a straw man argument that falls by its own weight. It contains more straw than the stick figure can support. The doctrine of justification by faith alone not only does not teach that justification is by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but in fact, teaches that which is totally antithetical to the idea. The phrase “justification by faith alone” is theological shorthand for saying justification is by Christ alone. Anyone who understands and advocates the doctrine of justification by faith alone knows that the focal point is that which justifies — trust in Christ and not trust in a doctrine.
One of the key terms in the phrase “justification by faith” is the word by, which signals that faith is the means or tool that links us to Christ and His benefits. The concept indicates that faith is the “instrumental” cause of our justification. What is in view in the Protestant formulation is a distinction from the Roman Catholic view of the instrumental cause. Rome declares the sacrament of baptism in the first instance and penance in the second instance to be the instrumental causes of justification. So the dispute of what instrument is the basis by which we are justified was and remains critical to the classical dispute between Rome and Protestantism. The Protestant view, following Paul’s teaching in the New Testament, is that faith is the sole instrument by which we are linked to Christ.
Closely related to this is the hotly disputed issue of the grounds of our justification before God. Here is where the biblical concept of imputation is so important. Those who deny imputation as the grounds of our justification declare it to be a legal fiction, a miscarriage of justice, or even a manifestation of cosmic child abuse. Yet at the same time, it is the biblical explanation for the ground of our redemption. No biblical text more clearly teaches this concept of transfer or imputation than that of Isaiah 53, which the New Testament church singled out as a crucial prophetic explanation of the drama of redemption. The New Testament declares Christ to be our righteousness, and it is precisely our confidence in the righteousness of Christ as the grounds for our justification that is the focus of the doctrine of justification by faith. We understand that believing the doctrine of sola fide will save no one. Faith in a doctrine is not enough to save. However, though we cannot be saved by believing in the doctrine of justification, the denial of that same doctrine can indeed be fatal because to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the apostle Paul indicated in Galatians is to reject the gospel and substitute something else for it, which would result in what Paul declares to be anathema. The gospel is too important to be dismissed by tilting at scarecrows.