Controversy in the Body of Christ is an unfortunate consequence of sin in this poor fallen world. Our common redemption does not exempt us from wrangling and disputing, alas. We are bound to have family squabbles. We are sadly inclined to carp, complain, murmur, nitpick, and bellyache. We are all too likely to exaggerate and manipulate one another’s best intentions and worst mistakes. We are sinners. And as a consequence we almost always find ways to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Not only are we generally wrong about how we have been right, we have been wrong about how we have been wrong. We make even bigger messes of our messes.
None of this is welcome.
What is welcome is the study—the laborious scrutiny and the begrudging clarity—that will often accompany controversy. Invariably, believers who are quite naturally disturbed by dogmatic divisions will be provoked dig more deeply in order to discern the truth. Thus, even in our worst moments some of our best opportunities emerge—opportunities to think, to grow, to mature, to reconcile, to restore, and to heal.
The current controversy in Reformed circles over the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith has been painful and destructive. It has been shameful and divisive. Fellowship has been sundered. Communion has been disrupted. Joy has been smothered. Very few of us have been able to escape its deleterious effects. And that is a bad thing.
In addition though, this vital and fundamental Gospel truth is being studied and discussed and written about with a new sense of urgency and purposefulness. And that is a good thing.
Though I would never have asked for the fulminating, backbiting, sniping, rumor mongering, and anathematizing that has pitted some of my dearest friends in ministry against one another, I for one have been grateful for the doctrinal precision it is provoking—and for the books I have, as a consequence, been reading and collecting.
I was thinking of this particularly this weekend as I read Francis Turretin’s Justification (P&R). Translated by George Giger, edited by James Dennison, and introduced by R.C. Sproul, the book is actually an excerpt from the larger Institutes of Elenctic Theology (also published by P&R). I’d quickly read the larger work some years ago, but I really took my time with this excerpt—and greatly benefited from the slower and more careful pace.
Turretin was a third generation reformer and the heir of the great Genevan legacy of Calvin, Beza, and Goudimel. It is not surprising then that in this book he takes up that vaunted mantle in altogether dismantling the Roman Catholic argument for an analytical and inherent justification. Neither does it come as any surprise that he carefully establishes the forensic character of imputed and synthetic justification. Indeed, he shows that this Reformation perspective is the only Biblical foundation for the propitiation of just wrath, the remission of sins, and the adoption of the elect into the family of God. As a result, he builds a beautiful and dynamic Scriptural argument for justification by faith alone. The response of the reader in the face of such sovereign grace so marvelously exposited can only be astonished doxology.
Indeed, that is the argument of Richard Phillips in another new book, Chosen in Christ (P&R). A study of the glory of grace in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the book asserts that far from being a cold, hard, and mechanical dogma, the doctrine of God’s purposeful providence can only stir the heart to joyous elation. Predestination is not a problem to be argued about, it is a glorious revelation to be celebrated with sheer glee. Election is our most substantial comfort, not our most perplexing dilemma. Sovereign grace—the basic presupposition underlying justification by faith alone—is thus the greatest provocation to covenantal obedience. Phillips writes beautifully, devotionally, and expositionally. He brings the doctrines of grace to life. This is the kind of fresh, delightful, and—dare I say it?—new perspective of the Gospel that we all desperately need.
To be sure, there are differences in the current controversy that ought not be minimized or disregarded. Doctrinal precision is not a virtue to be blithely dispatched. But in reading these books, I did not find myself more inclined to choose sides in the current controversy—indeed, I found instead substantial evidence for a happy reconciliation of all sides should flaring tempers ever cool and sword rattling ever quiet.
As I contemplated these things and as I read these books, I found myself provoked to worship. I went looking for answers to the questions posed by a debate and instead found solace for an ache in my soul. I found myself shaken with a holy fear and a grateful awe in the face of a Sovereign God choosing me—me of all people—to walk in faithful obedience within the covenant community. I found myself utterly and completely enthralled—and to be in thrall to Christ is a most blessed estate, especially in such fractious days as these.