Article of the Month

 

 

 

G.C. Berkhouwer

 

ARE we now to entangle ourselves in a subtle, scholastic puzzle about justification from eternity, an academic problem which promises only to remove us from the living reality of simple faith? We must admit that theologians have at times played with this question as though it were an innocent speculation, and have done so to the pain and sorrow of the Church. But even as they puzzled, those who were earnest enough saw that there was an issue involved which did touch a vital area of Christian faith. At the present time, it is recognized that this old problem has facets which are acutely relevant. It was Verschoor who said of a debate over this problem between Comrie and Brake! “that Comrie’s No to Brake! was as violent as Barth’s No to Brunner, and that, in the deepest sense, both had to do with the same issue.”

The debate about justification from eternity is conditioned by the nature of the relation between faith and justification. The question was whether justification occurs completely in time, thus making sense of the phrase “justification through faith,” or whether it precedes faith as such and occurs in the eternity of God’s counsel. If the latter were true, it would still be possible to speak of a justification through faith in time, but the justification in time would be viewed only against the more profound and decisive background of justification in eternity. The issue, and it is necessary to keep this in mind, is not correctly proposed in the antithesis justification in time vs. justification from eternity. Those who have taught justification from eternity have almost always insisted that this did not exclude a justification through faith in time. To explain this they sometimes suggested various “stages” in justification.

Kuyper, an exponent of justification from eternity, saw five steps in justification: the counsel of God, the resurrection of Christ, the planting of capacity for faith in man, the daily exercise of faith, and the last judgment.1 Thus, though he taught justification from eternity, he did not, as the steps show, rule out a justification in time. It is not, then, a question of two mutually exclusive doctrines. The deepest issue of this debate had to do not with logic, but with the relation of the sinner to God.

Kuyper emphasized that justification was a matter of our status before God, of His gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness, of the putting forward of Christ Himself. He confessed, naturally, that the sinner is justified through faith, but felt too that all would be lost if faith were looked on as an act of human merit which exercises a constitutive and determinative function for justification. Here we touch again the problem that has occupied our attention continually in this study — the place, significance, and function of faith in justification. For Kuyper this was at issue in the problem of justification from eternity. He wanted to say that, in the correlation of faith and justification, the latter does not originate through faith, but that is only accepted in and through faith.2 This is the standpoint from which Kuyper argues for justification from eternity.

If justification is a divine act of grace which no human merit can achieve, then it must also precede faith, argues Kuyper, as eternity “precedes” time. In developing this idea Kuyper adds that justification need not wait upon the revelation in time of conversion, consciousness of faith, and so forth. The sovereign act of justification arises from the depths of God’s secret life as a truly eternal pre.3 Certainly the divine justification is declared and proclaimed at a given moment in time, but this proclamation must be distinguished from justification itself.4 Justification must be freed from every tie with anything present in us. It is an act of divine sovereignty. Faith is shed of any creative function and retains only what we may call its receptive function.

It is not hard to recognize the profound religious motivation of the Reformation in all this. Without judging at the moment the discreteness of the term justification from eternity, we must admit that Kuyper uses it to translate the elementary experience of faith of every simple believer. For at heart every believer knows that his faith witnesses to and honors the sovereignly free grace of a divine act.

From this sovereign freedom, this independence, of God’s act, Kuyper concludes that the essential, the eternal justification comes to life in our consciousness in the justification which is through faith. The assumption is that justification has already been prepared for us before it enters our consciousness. By faith justification is appropriated in our consciousness and accepted in its eternal validity.5

Kuyper’s views did not go without opposition. How, it was asked, if justification is an eternal fact, is it possible to speak seriously of a justification through faith in time? All that remains is for the believer to become conscious of his justification. It was said, further, that what is present in God’s eternal knowledge, does not as such exist in historical reality. Galatians 3:8 was quoted against Kuyper. “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed.” The Gentiles, then, were not yet justified; they were yet to be made righteous. That is to say, justification was yet to take place in time through faith. Justification as an act of God has always been exhibited among His historical works. Eternal justification, therefore, cannot be a dogma of the Church. So went the argument against Kuyper.

Bavinck refuted the idea of eternal justification by getting at its underlying religious motive. He began by pointing out that Reformed theology has ever taken great care to avoid antinomianism and, in doing so, has also rejected unequivocally the doctrine of eternal justification. He was careful, however, to distinguish antinomianism from English antineonomianism. This latter antineonomianism protested against an interpretation of the gospel which read faith as a cooperating cause of our justification. The antineonomians insisted on the instrumental character of faith according to which faith was concerned exclusively with the content of its object. Justification from eternity was sometimes affirmed, but then not as the be all and end all of salvation. The great significance of justification through faith in time was fully appreciated; and this was in contrast to antinomianism which had no place at all for justification in time, construing it only as a declaration of the justification which existed eternally.

Bavinck acknowledged the religious motivation of the antineonomians. They were concerned with the pure gospel of grace and “kept alive a precious truth in eternal justification, a truth which no Reformed thinker may nor shall deny.”6 Bavinck also confessed that neither time nor anything occurring in time is detached from eternity: “Justification could never take its place in time were it not established in eternity.”7 He perceived the dimension of depth in the justifying act of God and saw, too, that it was this from which men like Kuyper drew the doctrine of eternal justification.

And yet Bavinck disputes the legitimacy of an eternal justification, or justification from eternity. He does so, first, because the Scriptures nowhere speak of it. Furthermore, he said, if one speaks of justification as eternal he should consistently also speak of creation, incarnation, sacrifice, calling, and regeneration as eternal. He was grateful that Reformation theology generally, from fear of antinomianism, had shied away from the idea.8 He was happy, too, he said, that even those who, under the mantle of Reformed theology, accepted the doctrine of eternal justification never maintained that the covenant of peace (the pactum salutis) was justification, entire and complete.

Thus, though Bavinck rejected the doctrine of justification from eternity, he still moved materially within the line of Kuyper, at least in his religious intention to hold untainted the confession of grace. He thought it most important that “Reformed theology hold fast to the truth that all the benefits of the covenant of grace are established in eternity.”9 Bavinck’s careful distinctions are of weight in this discussion, since the distinction between antinomian speculation and antineonomianism must be kept in mind if the whole discussion is to be understood.

Others thought they perceived a sharper distinction between eternal justification and justification in time than that admitted by Bavinck. According to this group, justification from eternity allows for only an acknowledgement of justification in time. If this is so, then there is no real justification in time. They saw a speculative element in the doctrine which minimized what took place in time and threw everything important back into eternity. It was the Reformed counterpart of idealism. It was part of the picture, then, that the same opponents of eternal justification should oppose supralapsarianism’10 and the so-called eternal covenant of grace, as well as the identification of the covenant of peace with the covenant of grace. The Scriptures, they contended, present justification ever in connection with faith. They wanted to underline, to put in italics, that the significance of faith is real and justification by faith not a mere eye-opener to the fact that one has already been justified.

This brings in our old friend, the problem of the relation between time and eternity. Both parties in the discussion on eternal justification are perpetually speaking of what happens in time and what in eternity. One somehow senses that in each solution there is something vaguely unsatisfactory, and that this has something to do with the profound relation of time to eternity. We note this even more in the still earlier debates on our present question.

The earlier discussions were consistently connected in one way or another with antinomianism. This antinomianism is not simply a radical disavowal of the validity of the law in the life of believers. The antinomianism we are dealing with here has far reaching implications for the work of Christ and for the doctrine of justification. Antinomianism tirelessly preached the completely and perfectly finished work of Christ on the cross. Redemption was accomplished in this unrepeatable and definitive event, and from this it was concluded that there is really nothing for the believer to do, that every effort to ascribe an activity to the believer was a refined form of work-righteousness, and that this was an attempt to add self-righteousness to the work of Christ as though His work were insufficient. At first sight, all this may sound like a revival of Pauline preaching — the total decisiveness and exclusive significance of the righteousness of Christ.

Bavinck realized that antinomianism contained an element of truth which we shall have to digest if we are to set up resistance to antinomianism as such.11 The error of the antinomians was not that they hearkened back to Christ’s perfect work. The Reformers, too, were forced to recall the “once for all-ness” of Christ’s sacrifice when faced with the Roman mass and its repetition of Christ’s death. How often in their controversy did they not pen the words of Christ’s high-priestly prayer: “I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou hast given me to do” (John 17:4)? The extent of Christ’s sacrifice is universal, absorbing the shocks of sin and death, rolling over ages, sifting the sands of time, penetrating the hard shell of man’s secret individuality. How can man add anything to this, which is celebrated in heaven perpetually with the ultimate paean of praise: “Worthy art thou . . . for thou wast slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation . . .” (Rev. 5:9)?

Had antinomianism done nothing else than remind the world of this perfect offering for the sins of the world, it would have been embraced into the fold of the Reformation solo fide. But the fact is that the antinomians drew a great deal of bitter water from the well of their primal conviction. They concluded that all sin and guilt, all taint and impurity were swept away and were now not merely disallowed, but impossible. Sin as guilt before God could no longer exist in the believer.

Forgiveness was so immense that at the moment in which actual sin threatened to invade the life of the believer, it was sucked away into the vacuum of eternal redemption. Prayer for forgiveness, as the Lord had taught it, was not for believers. Redemption was locked up so tight in eternity that what happened in time could no longer touch it. Such a turn of logic could not find its home in anything temporal. The thinking of antinomianism came to rest finally in the doctrine of eternal justification. The decision was made in God’s decree; justification was set in eternal granite. Our sins were annulled in eternal simultaneity with the divine decree of justification.

This concept of eternal justification reveals how a speculative logic can invade a scriptural proclamation of salvation and torture it beyond recognition. This is the danger of an apparently consistent logical process which at first imperceptibly and then quite finally estranges itself from scriptural reality. The fault of the thinking is not that it refuses to let the divine acting and speaking in time loose from the grip of eternity nor that it refuses to lose the redeeming work of Christ in the maze of historical relativity. It lies in this, that it robs the divine revelation of its unique and saving significance and devaluates the historical character of the activity of God. When speculation on time and eternity, with eternity swallowing up the significance of time, determines the line of thought, there is no possibility of doing justice to such mysteries as the incarnation and redemption — or to justification through faith within the temporal reality of our lives.

Having reached this extreme, opposition to nomism could bear no fruit. Had antinomianism merely disavowed that faith was a condition precedent to justification, it could still have maintained the real character of the correlation between faith and justification, and with this could have withstood the nomism which makes a causal relation out of this correlation. But it reacted too severely and lost its grasp on the fact that God pronounces His judgment of justification in the way of faith through the preaching of redemption within our temporal existence. The reality of justification in time must never be by-passed via a speculative train of thought concerning eternity. He who allows justification and redemption to ascend out of time into eternity is never again able to avoid the fatal conclusion that everything occurring in time merely formalizes or illustrates what has been molded in eternal quietness. Even the terrible reality of the cross is swallowed in the deep, still waters of eternity.

Between this antinomianism and the idealism of the nineteenth century there is a remarkable correspondence. The analogy lies in antinomianism’s concept of time and eternity and idealism’s construal of idea and fact. Both debase time and history, as well as God’s decisive invasion of history. These people are groping beyond history and behind time for the real revelation. Both view the revelation of God, not as real revelation, but as an illustration of the true, eternal idea. To take this line of approach in Christian thought is to fall into a morass of speculation. Antinomianism is a sorry chapter in the Church’s history, but it can serve well as a sharp warning to every member of the Church that the way of Christian truth is not the thin thread of speculation, but the concrete revelation of God in Word and Act.

* * *

With an eye to the example of antinomianism, later protagonists of the doctrine of eternal justification were careful to allow for the vital significance of justification through faith in time. Kuyper, whom we have previously mentioned as a teacher of justification from eternity, spoke of justification through faith as the “artery of grace.” Nevertheless, we can detect a certain tension present in the whole discussion of justification from eternity. On one hand, there were men who were eager not to over-estimate the importance of faith in justification and who therefore gave unreserved priority to the justifying act of God over the faith which received and accepted this judgment. The next step from this was the doctrine of eternal justification. On the other hand, other thinkers, eager to preserve the significance of faith, accented, with Scripture presumably, the call to believe and taught that justification follows upon faith. Hereby the danger of neonomianism showed its ugly head. We see in antinomianism and neonomianism the two principle possibilities by which the correlation between faith and justification may be misconstrued.

A debate which took place in the Netherlands of the eighteenth century between Brakel and Comrie illustrates the fact that we have here touched upon the heart of the question concerning the correlation between faith and justification. Brakel wanted a sharp distinction between the purpose of God and justification itself. God, he said, decreed from eternity to justify, but this decree is not justification as such.12 The elect, according to Ephesians 2:3 and Romans 5:10, are, before they are regenerated, children of wrath by nature and enemies of God. This could not be asserted in Scripture if they really had been justified from eternity. Justification occurs, according to Brakel, after the sinner is called and through the means of actual faith, thus it cannot be from eternity. This was self-evident to Brakel: faith must precede justification. Only after faith takes hold of Christ and His benefits does God come with His justifying declaration of pardon. We could perhaps call this an analytical justification, meaning that the believer clothes himself through faith with Christ’s righteousness and as so garbed is declared justified. This is not, says Brakel, to be confused with justification through works; justification occurs only through faith, which is to say, through the righteousness of Christ as it is assumed through faith. Faith is not presented as the cause of the believer’s righteousness, but as a means of accepting Christ’s righteousness; the notion that love and obedience to the commands of Christ justify is rejected. Faith, then, is not a work, but a means. Otherwise justification would be, after all, through works. Brakel avers that his conception is scriptural, that he insists with the Bible that man is not justified because of faith, that faith is not a meritorious cause, ground, or rationale of justification. Justification, he says, is only through Christ as received in faith.

Brakel’s intent is clearly to identify his thought, with the Reformation sola fide. Faith is presented as directed toward its object and content, and only in this connection does it have significance. Not the work of faith, nor the psychological attitude involved in believing, but the direction and content is the thing.

But at this point Brakel begins to sing in his own theological key. Justification is possessed by the believer as the result of his having taken upon himself through faith the righteousness of Christ. Divine justification is more like an infallible observation of the actual state of affairs, of the righteousness which is present in the believer, than a sovereign, justifying declaration. Though it be true that Brakel lets the weight of his argument fall on the righteousness of Christ as the meriting cause of justification, he must admit that justification, in his view, is an analytical process, not a synthetic judgment. Brakel must have known that, according to Paul, it is the ungodly whom God declares righteous.

We may now introduce Alexander Comrie, Brakel’s contemporary and greatest opponent, into the discussion.13 Comrie suspected Brakel’s teaching of being tainted with Arminianism. It was Brakel’s insistence that faith comes before the assumption of the righteousness of Christ which led to Comrie’s charge. The soul of the remonstrants’ appeal was that man is justified through the act of faith. For Comrie it was the sovereign grace of God, the grace that preceded faith which was written in boldface and to which faith is merely an answer. Faith is not the work, but the instrument. It was a short step, then, to the position that justification takes temporal precedence to faith or, better, that justification is eternal, before all time, while faith is a mere temporal assent to an eternal truth. The relation of faith and justification was neither reciprocal, nor causal; the very existence of the relation was brought into being by God’s previous gracious act of justification. At the heart of Comrie’s appeal was a fervent desire that grace be not dependent upon the subjectivity of man’s faith.

It was certainly not Brakel’s intent to make a meritorious human function out of faith. And yet, admitting his sincere confession of justification by grace, we must still say that his thesis that faith preceded justification made him blind in one eye to the Reformation doctrine of justification. Comrie, on the other hand, apart from the peculiar form of his argument, really did move back toward the Reformation theme. But did he avoid the Charybdis Arminianism only to go aground on the Scylla antinomianism?

He did not want to deny justification through faith, any more than Kuyper did. Thus he had to think hard about the relation between justification in time and justification from eternity. His conclusion was that justification goes back to eternity. He defended the justification of the ungodly against what he called the “new doctrine” of the priority of faith to justification. We may rightly speak, says, Comrie, of a justification through faith, but only with the understanding that there is first a justification before faith and unto faith. This must be so since justification is first of all an act of God quite external to us. Accordingly, he rejected the thesis that faith

is a precondition which must be fulfilled before God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us. In other words, he opposed those who averred divine justification to be not previous to, but only of and through and, indeed, because of and after our believing. Comrie did not devaluate what occurs or shall, according to God’s will, occur in time and was amazed that he should be charged with denying the importance of “justification through faith.” He was not willing, however, to let a jot or tittle be removed from the truth that God’s love and grace do not arise from time or from the relativity of human experience. Grace is from eternity and is the real source of everything that God stoops to give us in time. Thus, it must simply be a fact that justification is eternal, founded in the eternal God. To deny this is to invite the specter of Arminianism and neonomianism, for to deny it is to say that justification waits on human acts of faith. As Brakel taught an analytical justification, so Comrie presents us with a synthetic justification.

There is nothing in man, from the puniest achievement to the noblest accomplishment, which could be the basis for God’s justification of him. It is the ungodly whom God justifies. To say anything else is to slide back into Roman Catholic theology, which makes sanctification prior to justification. From all this, it is clear how intense Comrie’s desire was to preserve the gracious character of justification in the Reformation sense. It would be ingrate not to appreciate Comrie’s defense of the sovereign character of grace or his opposition to an inflated valuation of human works or even of faith. We should credit him with seeing not only that the imagined merit of good works threatens the prize of grace, but that even a pious overvaluation of faith can be an irreligious trespass on work-righteousness. This is quite another thing than the airy speculations of the antinomians, who used the same terms, but filled them with different stuff. Antinomianism scorned time and history, disdained the concrete reality of the temporal, and went in search only of eternal truths. Comrie did not turn to eternity because he found that time had so little to offer. What he wanted to say was that man’s precious salvation is established in the depth and riches of the justifying grace of God. And he did not want the priority of this divine grace to go begging for recognition.

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What must we say of all this? It would certainly be untrue, though understandable, to say that it all amounts only to a speculative aberration in the history of theology. Especially in the nineteenth century, when the historical character of divine revelation was forgotten in a flourish of theological and philosophical “eternal concepts,” a person trying to hold on to the real and actual events of scriptural revelation might have been inclined to shudder at the word eternity in connection with so vital a thing as justification. There have been a good many speculations on eternity whose “ideal world” snuffed out the lights of this temporal existence, though they were acknowledged to have been lighted by God Himself. It is indeed good to beware of such Zeitlosigkeits-metaphysik. It plants the kiss of death on eschatology, and on the way of salvation and the doctrine of justification as well.

On the other hand, we must say, a reaction to such timeless metaphysics must not drive us to historicize God’s work. We see again and again that Scripture accents the realness of revelation in time, but yet impresses us in each reading that His is the revelation of the eternal God. Only unfounded reaction can close our eyes to the dimension of depth in the divine revelation and in His act of redemption. It is this dimension that inspires the canticles and psalms to eternal grace. “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love: having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6).

And this is not an isolated aria, nor the only time that the everlasting “before” is sung. God’s saving secret hidden from the wise and well-born, is revealed to children: “yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight” (Matt. 11:26). The mystery of His will is made known, according to the pleasure “which He purposed in Him” (Eph. 1:9). In Christ we receive the inheritance, it “having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). His will is conditioned neither by history or the works of individual men (Rom. 9:11). Thus speak the Scriptures of the elective purpose of God.

We shall not discuss the scriptural design of election; it is enough to note here that this Bible message is so plain and assertive that to anyone who takes pains to listen the priority of God’s grace will be overwhelmingly convincing. For this reason it is rather remarkable that not election but justification is at issue in most discussions about justification from eternity. This suggests that there is a common antipathy to the humanization of divine grace, and opens the possibility that perhaps the whole debate was clouded by a failure of both sides to understand each other’s terms. Everyone in this discussion was committed to both the sovereign character of grace and the necessity of faith. The differences were in emphasis; different phrases were underlined and voices were raised at different points. There were after all two threats to the gospel: Arminianism (and neonomianism) and antinomianism. One party in our discussion had his eye to the former, the other was dead afraid of the latter. All this was conditioned by differences in personal experiences and temperament, as well as by general outlook on other concerns of the day.

Thus we observe that those who contend for eternal justification are particularly outspoken on behalf of the sovereignty of grace. The opponents of eternal justification, no matter how earnest their confession of eternal election and withal the priority of grace, put the emphasis on the demand of faith, and are most articulate in their serious reminder of the urgent “call to believe.” Is there a confessional opposition here? Certainly not at this point. Anyone who reads the confessions seriously knows that they insist upon the necessity of faith as well as that faith in itself carries no merit. The whole gospel can be translated only where both of these facets are included and where both of .the dangers they point to are excluded.

It is highly regrettable therefore whenever divergences lead to strife instead of to a mutual appreciation of the deepest motives of each. This controversy should now be dead, buried with honors and a tinge of relief. And although the declaration of concord should not mean the discharge of the guards, all those united in an appreciation of the correlation between faith and justification should be able to find and understand each other. The unrestrained goodness of divine grace and the serious call to true faith are alike strains in the one gospel. They do not drown each other out, and neither need we.

* * *

We have yet to judge whether a scientific dogmatic opinion allows for the doctrine of eternal justification. To put it another way, does the doctrine of justification from eternity contain a truth which presents the mystery of the correlation between faith and justification more clearly and in a form more full of comfort and warning than does the doctrine of justification as it is expressed in the confessions? As we have mentioned, the opponents of the idea contended that the confessions know of no such notion and the proponents themselves admit that the phrase is not found in any confession. The question is whether the admittedly valid religious motivation behind the doctrine comes satisfactorily to expression in the confessions.

Our opinion is that it does. The confessions assign no creative function to faith in its correlation to justification. The whole matter is framed in God’s eternal grace; justification, we are told, does not rest upon the worthiness of our faith but on the eternal precedence of His goodness. That which is intended by the doctrine of eternal justification, the truly illimitable favor of God, must always be the assumption of the correlation between faith and justification. This correlation, however, is given in the confessions as a correlation in time. The sovereignty of grace is honored only in faith, a faith that gives all honor to God. This is why salvation in the historical correlation of faith and justification is made dependent upon human decision. It is this faith which finds its appropriate expression in Jeremiah’s confession: “O Jehovah thou hast persuaded me, and I was persuaded; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed” (Jer. 20:7).

It was in the midst of our temporal life that the Father revealed Jesus Christ to us in love and redeeming mercy. Time is, in Christ, full of His salvation. Salvation is not of, but is surely in history. It arises out of the eternal depths of the heart of God. The dayspring from on high has visited us because of the mercy of our God (Luke 1:78), and redemption has begun to touch each day’s ordinary reality with the light of redemption and renewal (II Cor. 5:17, 18).

The great Worker of salvation is not imprisoned within the walls of time; but it is within them that His word of justification and pardon is heard. And faith is that hearing (Rom. 10:17). We reconcile ourselves to God, as Scripture beseeches us to do (II Cor. 5:20), but in this reconciliation we are stripped bare of merit. Thus we may speak of the way of salvation and of justification through faith. God’s grace as eternal love, as the eternal “precedent” is confessed in this faith. For He died while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:10). This is the meaning of Christ’s words: “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you” (John 15:16), and of John’s: “We love him because he first loved us.” (I John 4:19).

* * *

Thus the very nature of faith itself involves a recognition and confession of the priority of divine grace. The correlation between faith and justification is unthinkable without this confession. The correlation is in time, it can be nowhere else, but it concurs with the eternal love which is the seedbed of justification.

There must be no contrast between theological reflection and the personal word of Scripture. Dogmatics can do no more than reflect upon the nature and the implications of this correlation; it can never construct a system for the exclusive enjoyment of professional theologians. Theology is not an excursion into the stratosphere that lies beyond scriptural speech in time; it may not travel beyond the borders of faith’s perspective. Beyond the word of Scripture we dare not go, in speech or in theological reflection; for it is in this word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is revealed. There is nothing beyond that.

Speculation which seeks after “depth” in place of or beside this “practical” word must be directed back to the simple witness of revelation. For the way of independent speculation leads to a dualism between the practical and the theological, between the simplicity of faith and the systematics of reason — and this destroys the correlation given in the depth of divine revelation.

For this reason there is no place for an eternal justification side by side with a justification in time. Naturally we do not mean to confine God’s love within time’s horizon. We are moved by the fact that the eternity of divine mercy comes to us in the historical revelation and that this is understood and adored only in faith. We have here drawn nigh to an unfathomable mystery in God’s eternal love in Jesus Christ. Many views of God’s eternity have done injustice to His eternal election and thus made human activity really determinative. But this need not lead us in reaction to lose our grasp on the fact that God’s eternity is not isolated from us, abstract and transcendent beyond time, but is present and immanent in every moment of time.14 He makes use of time to reveal His eternal thoughts and virtues. He renders time serviceable and shows Himself thus to be the King of Ages, Rex seculorum.15

Eternity and time “are not two lines, of which the shorter runs parallel for a while with the other which extends infinitely; eternity is the unchangeable center which sends out rays to cover the whole contour of time.”16 We all feel the inadequacy of such a formulation, but it helps us understand that we may not search beyond God’s historical revelation for a deeper basis and profounder understanding of redemption than that brought into the valley of our temporality by the eternal Son of God Himself. The boundary separating eternal speculations from the reflection of faith lies here: speculation attempts to pierce through into the shades of eternity; faith reflects on the Word given in time and seeks an understanding of the nature of faith itself. This is why true faith when it has arrived at the borders of its terrain, is content to confess God’s own eternal election, confessing, then, sola gratia and singing the Church’s psalm of praise. The conflicts of the Church with Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, and all who have denied election were not enflamed by a theological imperialism; they were simply stubborn refusals to be lured by human speculation beyond the confession of sovereign grace as taught in divine revelation.

The Church has exalted divine grace in her confession of justification through faith alone and has said therein just about everything the believer can say of this justification. This confession needs no amplification; it is complete. Addition to it would be superfluous, for in it the believing soul hears the beating of the Father’s heart. Thus we do not need the phrase eternal justification or justification from eternity.

* * *

He who reflects seriously on justification through faith will do well to keep a sharp eye on the dangers that continually threaten his thought. He shall have to watch the horizons of faith’s perspective for every intrusion upon the message of Scripture. This warning is particularly apropos at the moment, with divine election again the flaming center of theological discussion and the theologians occupied with the boundary separating the true Reformed and a speculative human conception of God’s election. We must shake ourselves free from every deterministic and fatalistic theory and try to grasp the scriptural, and therewith religious, understanding of election. In spite of our sickly and witless attempts to give form to our thoughts on this matter, we understand intuitively that what we encounter in the Scriptures is not a speculative, metaphysical system proposed for our consent.

We are not discussing election here, it is true, but we do touch upon these questions when studying the relation between time and eternity in connection with justification by faith. This is quite apparent in Barth’s extensive discussion of election. The most indicative point in his treatment is the insistence that the entire reality of God’s purpose coincides with the revelation in Jesus Christ. The question of God’s eternal resolution and justification in time as we have been considering it is eliminated from the discussion. Barth sees the “decree” as it is broached in Reformed theology as only a source of grief and misconstrual. The idea of an “absolute decree” is distasteful to him especially since it has been made, according to him, “the principle from which everything else is deduced.”17 In its place he proposes that the doctrine of election be understood Christologically.18 Supra- and infralapsarianism alike consider predestination as a static system resting in eternity.19 Behind both lurks “the image of the absolute, the God who neither binds Himself nor is bound, and not the image of the Son of God who binds Himself and is thus bound in unity with the son of David.” That is to say, neither supra- nor infralapsarianism works with the image of “God in Christ.”20 Barth protests against the “balanced” system of the Reformed doctrine of predestination, against the idolatry of the “absolute decree,” and substitutes for these the “recognition of the elected man Jesus Christ as the sole object of divine predestination.”21

Jesus Christ is, thus, the electing God and the elected man.22 With this everything problematic in the relation between time and eternity is banished. By making Christ the object of predestination, Barth would lay a stable foundation under the Reformed teaching of Christ as the mirror of election.23 It is clear that he is trying to protest against speculation by underscoring the historical reality of redemption, the reality that “Jesus Christ is the Word of God, perfect and incapable of being over-estimated.” He allows for no “secret” election which could possibly relativize or lay open to question the revelation in Christ. It is Christ the mirror of redemption or, to use the Lutheran expression, the “book of life” over against every speculation as the basis for the assurance of salvation!24

Barth is cognizant, of course, of the biblical passages which “directly and expressly speak of God’s election or predestination,” and, be they “not particularly numerous,” we still have to “go back to them again and again and proceed from there.”25 But he wants us to reflect that “the Word, presented in Scripture, who calls us, is the same Word of God who creates and reveals all knowledge of God and man and who as such is for all time perfect and incapable of being over-estimated, and from whom we may not allow ourselves to be separated by a single breath.”26 “The pre-temporal, eternal will of God is nothing other than the supra-temporal Eternal who has disclosed Himself as such and is active within time.”27 Hence, predestination can only be understood Christologically. “The reality of this eternal unity of God and man is a concrete decision. Its content has a name; it is a person. He is called, and is, Jesus Christ, and is for that reason not a decretum absolutum.28 The correlation between faith and revelation is a stranger in the sphere of the absolute decree. One cannot believe the absolute decree; he can only stare at it.

Barth presents us here with an extremely important question, a point which has troubled the best of minds ever since the Reformation. The correlation between faith and our salvation, as the reformers saw it, did not mean a correlation between faith and a secret election, but a correlation between faith and the salvation that is revealed to us and encounters us in Christ. The man who addresses himself to the hidden depths of God’s purpose instead of to the historical revelation in Christ as it encounters us in the service of redemption has already run afoul of the truth. The reformers, no less than Barth certainly, willed every believer bound to Christ and every path that turned away from Him rejected as speculation. This was where their witness lay as to the ground of the assurance of salvation. The idea of Christ as the “mirror of election” becomes increasingly prominent as the antithesis between Christianity and determinism or fatalism becomes more sharply focused. For no such idea can be found in any form of determinism. This is of such great significance for the assurance of salvation that we can only accept this focus of the confession with profound gratitude. In it we share the deepest intent of the thought of both Luther and Calvin.

Calvinism has often been accused of having robbed the historical revelation of all its value and of setting every basic decision in the context of eternity. This criticism is particularly disturbing since, it were true, it would make of everything that is realized in time nothing but a medium of knowing what really occurred in eternity. And this would make of Christ only a teacher and a prophet of eternal truths. No actual decision could ever be made in time; nothing decisive could occur, neither in the cross or the resurrection. The confessions of the Reformed churches, however, are most articulate in their rejection of speculation; never did they proceed from an “eternal deduction” to strip the historical work of Christ of its divine and saving character. For this reason, Barth’s doctrine of election ought to engage the serious attention of Reformed dogmatics.

This will call for an extensive discussion in the proper place, though even here one point is relevant. In Barth’s teaching of Christ as the mirror of election, he makes divine election coincide with the election of Jesus Christ. Brunner has said that Barth’s doctrine of Christ as the object of a double predestination29 “is nowhere to be found in the Bible.”30 We may add that the consequences of his doctrine of election bring him continually to the precipice of apokatastasis or universalism. We must also question whether Barth really does justice to the depth of earnestness in the scriptural witness. It is quite fair to warn that God’s purpose and His election “in Christ” must not be interpreted as a speculative idealistic system. For this would be to annul all assurance of salvation by canceling the reality of historical revelation. But neither must we historicize such terms. When the Scripture speaks to us of God’s counsel, His eternal purpose, and His creative thinking it guides us into the depth of that which came to us in the Word of redemption. The mystery of the correlation between faith and revelation realizes itself within the boundaries of our temporal existence.

Though he reach far out beyond the horizons of his temporal circumstance, man never gets hold of Truth until he believes that Truth came in Jesus Christ. In the Word of Truth we encounter the mystery of His will as He has made it known to us: “Making known unto’ us the mystery of his, will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him . . . in him, I say, in whom we also were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:9-11). He who cuts himself off from this historical revelation, this mensura humana, historicizes both redemption and revelation, and cuts loose the eternal, divine perspective of grace from history. For, though we are set before the unsearchable judgment and untraceable ways of God and before the depths of the riches both of His wisdom and knowledge, we can perceive that in all these scriptural words the finger of the divine Word is pointed to the eternal “pre,” the “from before” of God’s love, which finds its pivot only in Christ irrespective of what we do or think. There is only one way for a man to travel, the way of faith in the inscrutable but traversable way which God has paved — the way of salvation that has no other goal than divine salvation.

The way of speculation by-passes the correlation of faith and grace. We shall, thus, give full vent to the totality of Scripture only if we subtract nothing from either the “beforehand” of God’s grace in Christ, or the promise of the gospel with which the living God has revealed Himself within our life.

* * *

In the entire gamut of theology, a pure insight of faith is of utmost importance for the relation between faith and justification. The preaching of salvation is perpetually threatened from two directions: on one hand from an over-estimation of the function of faith, by which the decisiveness of grace is made dependent upon human abilities and capacities, and, on the other hand, from a disruption of the correlation by making salvation so wholly objective that faith loses its decisive role in the correlation. The Church must avoid both Charybdis and Scylla. The jubilant song of assurance that we are justified by faith sounds through Holy Scripture — this is what Comrie meant to say by his “eternal justification.” This idea becomes dangerous when we try to pursue it with logical consistency. If that is done, the reality of justification through faith is swallowed by rational speculation. However, the intent of the notion is not speculative, but religious. It was an attempt to give form to the pure content of sola fide, the disclaimer of every element of merit in faith as a human act, and therewith a rejection of the intrinsic value of faith. This is to say that it was a manner of expressing the depth of divine mercy and the mystery of His will which He has made known to us.

Sola fide is once and for all not a theoretical, one-sided construction. Its intent is to capitalize the Sovereign Grace in which faith finds its home. No dogmatic contemplation can rise above this. And dogmatics worth its salt does not want to, for it seeks no gnosis that is concealed to simple faith. Further than this it cannot go; more than this it cannot say. Dogmatic reflection, like simple faith, must honor God’s order, the divine way of salvation. God’s mercy comes to us in the administration of redemption along the trail of history. And in this we are guarded against speculation. For confronting us is the mirror of our election, Jesus Christ.

This was nicely expressed by Calvin: “In the first place, if we seek the fatherly clemency and propitious heart of God, our eyes must be directed to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased . . . If we are chosen in him, we shall find no assurance of our election in ourselves; nor even in God the Father, considered alone, abstractly from the Son. Christ, therefore, is the mirror, in which it behooves us to contemplate our election; and here we may do it with safety.”31 Here is the antithesis to salvation through the work of faith as well as to any emasculation of the call to believe. In such a position we have the only durable resistance to any disruptive intrusion into the living correlation between faith and grace. Such intrusions usually purpose to cut off either one side of the correlation or the other, either human faith or divine grace. And to cut off one is to malign the other. For it is divine grace which is honored in faith as unmerited even by faith itself.


Notes

  1. A. Kuyper, E Voto, II, p. 333. In his Loci (De Salute, IV) Kuyper has nine steps: the decree, Constitutio Mediatoris, presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection of Christ, planting of capacity for faith, preaching of the gospel, the actual believing, continuous conversion, and the last judgment.
  2. This comes out clearly when Kuyper writes: “This is now justification through faith. Not that which comes into being through faith. Not that which first begins to work through faith. Not even that which, as though it were still defective, is completed through faith. No! Your justification lay complete and perfect outside of you when you approached it through faith. All that your faith does is believe it, and in faith accept it.” E Voto, II, p. 344.
  3. Cf. A. Kuyper, Het Werk van de Heilige Geest, 2nd ed., 1927, p. 462: “Whenever a child of God reflects with his soul on the glorious and delightful reality of his justification, he does not feel confined to the moment of his conversion or to any other moment of the past; he feels how his salvation flowed out to him from eternal depths of the secret life of his God.”
  4. Ibid., p. 463; cf. E Voto, II, p. 335.
  5. Cf. Kuyper, Loci IV. p. 64: “Bread does not become bread through the eating of it; it must be bread in order to be eaten. Eating only involves the perception and appropriation of it.”
  6. H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek. IV. p. 199.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., III, p. 589.
  9. Ibid., p. 599.
  10. Cf. W. Heyns, Manual of Reformed Doctrine, 1926, p. 239: “Thus supra presents justification as having been accomplished in eternity and thus a benefit for which faith can have no signification. The necessity of faith for justification as a judicial act of God is eliminated.”
  11. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, III, p. 571.
  12. For Brakel’s side of the discussion, vid. W. à Brakel, Redelijke Godsdienst, 2nd ed., 1893, I, pp. 855 ff.
  13. Comri’s thought may best be gathered from his Brief over de rechtvaardiging des zondaars door de onmiddelijk toerekening der borggerechtigheid van Christus, 1889 ed.
  14. Cf. H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, II, p. 134.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 393.
  17. K. Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatiek, II, 2, p. 86.
  18. Ibid., p. 87.
  19. Ibid., p. 144.
  20. Ibid., p. 145.
  21. Ibid., p. 154.
  22. Ibid., p. 157.
  23. Ibid., p. 72.
  24. Ibid., p. 168.
  25. Ibid., p. 161.
  26. Ibid., p. 165; cf. p. 170.
  27. Ibid., p. 170.
  28. Ibid., p. 172. The “concrete decree” in the election of Jesus Christ must replace the “absolute decree.” Cf. p. 173.
  29. Ibid., p. 130.
  30. E. Brunner, Dogmatik, I, p. 376.
  31. Calvin, Institutes, III, xxiv, 5.

Author

The well-known Reformed theologian Dr. Gerrit C. Berkouwer passed away on January 25, 1996, at the age of 92. He had retired as professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. Berkouwer also played a critical role in modern Dutch church history, since he was the president of the [Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland] general synod of 1943-1945, whose decisions occasioned the church split of 1944 known as the Liberation (Vrijmaking). While he was still living, both friend and foe described Berkouwer as captivating, well-read, influential and cosmopolitan.

Almost everybody agrees as well that Berkouwer's thinking underwent a shift. Observers committed to Reformed orthodoxy indicate that, especially during the 1950's, Berkouwer departed from the classic Reformed viewpoint on several issues. For example, a comparison between his earlier and later writings shows a shift of viewpoint regarding matters like the authority of Scripture and original sin.

This article was taken from Berkouwer's work, Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Justification, Eerdmands: Grand Rapids, 1954. pp. 143-168.


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