Faith Is the Embracing, Not the Embraced

Many helpful summaries and explanations of the justification debate and N. T. Wright have arisen over the last couple of weeks surrounding the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta. One takeaway from the whole thing is the importance of articulating the relationship between our faith and our union with Christ.

Faith should never be exalted to a place that undermines Jesus and our union with him. No evangelical wants to do that. The “in Christ” reality is very good in the good news. A crucial question arises in how one might be “in Christ.”

In my opinion, this is a high point in John Piper's book, The Future of Justification. Piper quotes Wright from his essay "New Perspectives on Paul," 261:

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 God raised him from the dead.

This is excellent! And at the same time, Piper reminds us that the announcement of Jesus’ lordship is not inherently good news for sinners who have rebelled against such a Lord. Jesus' lordship is terrifying for those guilty of treason and liable for execution (The Future of Justification, 86).

The Lordship of Christ and the Guilty

Piper gives the example of Paul on the road to Damascus. Regarding Paul's being knocked off his horse before the exalted Christ, Piper writes:

His first thoughts would not be about a new worldview and a new creation, but whether he would at that moment be destroyed. (87)

Piper's explanation of Paul's terror fits with the picture of the Messianic king of Psalm 2:12:

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Stated bluntly, this verse is saying, “either take refuge in the Son or be disintegrated by him!” But how? How do we take refuge in the King who is angry and fierce in a righteous wrath against the foolishness of the nations? This is not good news yet.

Piper stresses that escape from God’s wrath is not a subplot of the gospel. He refers to Paul’s description of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 to confirm his point that the gospel involves more than Jesus’ lordship. Essential to the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins (89).

So What Is the Role of Faith?

Romans 10:9-10 is foundational. Piper’s explanation deserves a full quotation:

[N]otice how Romans 10:9 relates to Romans 10:10. It is true that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v. 9). Wright wants to stress the fact that when one believes the gospel, this is precisely what one believes—that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. Yes. The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection and lordship is good news. And we must believe it. But it can only be heard as good news if we give the guilty rebel the promise that believing this will save him and then give him some reason to hope that the risen King will not execute him for his treason. The end of verse 9 gives that promise: Believe this and “you will be saved.” And the next verse gives the reason for this hope. (90)

Paul says in verse 10, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Piper writes,

Does not the way verse 10 grounds verse 9 show that in Paul’s mind the proclamation of the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection and lordship become good news when some explanation is given about how they make us righteous before God rather than guilty? (90)

Faith in Terms of Union with Christ

So the good news of what it means to be “in Christ” must be combined with the good news of how one can be “in Christ.” Spirit-granted faith is the means that brings us into the glorious reality of union with Jesus. Faith is not the end and it is not our hope. Faith is the embracing, not the thing that is itself embraced.

Calvin says it this way in Institutes III.XI.7,

We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ’s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ. From this it is to be inferred that, in teaching that before his righteousness is received Christ is received in faith, we do not take the power of justifying away from Christ.

Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, and is the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary .