Guest Contribution, Lawrence Garcia: Justification According to Works At the End of the Age: Sanders, Wright, and Torrance All Walk Into A Bar…

Here is our next guest contribution provided by Lawrence (Larry) Garcia. I met Larry a couple of years ago (maybe), where else, but on Facebook. He is a great brother, loves Jesus, and has become intrigued more recently with Thomas F. Torrance’s offering in particular. Larry brings an interesting perspective as he is also very well read in the sphere of current biblical studies issues, and in particular, revolving around N.T. Wright. As you will see his most excellent and provocative short essay engages with biblical studies folks, and brings them into conversation with TF Torrance. Let’s welcome Larry, and be edified and provoked by what he has written. If you would like to contribute a short essay or article for the blog having to do with some themes (for, against, or indifferent) of Evangelical Calvinism (as you understand them), then please, like Larry, contact me, and we’ll see what we can do towards getting your article published here. Here is Larry.

larrygarciaBio: Lawrence Garcia is the current head pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear-Phoenix, AZ and blogs over at The Unlikely Theologian where he engages in weekly theological, pastoral, and missional reflection. He enjoys dance, cooking, and reading all things N.T. Wright and T.F. Torrance. His ultimate mission is to show that deep theological reflection and real life co-inhere and uphold one another.

If E.P. Sanders’ 1977 watershed work, Paul And Palestinian Judaism, forced anything upon Pauline studies at all, it made it face up to the fact that Judaism[1] was not a legalistic monolith where everyone’s chief aim was to accomplish self-justifying works as sort of proto-Pelagian. After a fresh re-examination of the extensive literature of the Second-Temple and rabbinic traditions Sanders coined an alternative term to describe what he would style as “covenantal-nomism,” a “pattern of religion” that held together the tension between God’s gracious formation/election of the nation of Israel and their reciprocal response by way of the covenant. Sanders stated:

The ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.[2]

Of course, when the texts largely confirm (even if we go with something like Caron’s “variegated nomism” to give allowance for some “legalistic” sects during the period, even the “ethnocentric nomism” proposed by Bird) this so-called “pattern,” the temptation is either to say Paul himself misunderstood his contemporaries  (doubtful) or Paul shared in a Christianized version of covenantal nomism (à la Sanders or VanLandingham) or Paul introduces something altogether new in total disconnection to what went before (more de-Judaizing, thus introducing a radical revelational and soteriological break in salvation history).

In fact, something radically “new” seems also to be rejected on purely exegetical grounds, because for the life of me I cannot locate a final judgment passage where works do not appear to be decisive on some level. It seems, Sanders’ work has brought back into focus what Paul and others never lost sight of: that in the final judgment works seem to play a major if not central factor on the outcome. This is where N.T. Wright comes in and takes a seat at the bar of Pauline perspectives. Picking up on Sanders’ key insights (Sanders never fully develops the continuity between Paul and Palestinian Judaism at this point into anything theologically satisfying) Wright, on the other hand, offers a robust account of the role of works in the final judgment (or, even, “justification” as Romans 2 puts it) through a pneumatic axis between justification in the present based off of Christ’s representative faithfulness and final vindication in “accordance with the whole life led.”

Some critics have picked up on Wright’s use of the word “based” (when used in the context of final vindication) as if this means Wright is trying to serve up (albeit in a back door route) a semi-Pelagian account of works and end-time justification, but this, as I see it, is simple pedantry which ignores the wider context in which Wright is clearly appealing to the work of the Spirit in the believer to produce the justifying fruit. Wright responds:

But I want now to emphasize particularly that this future justification, though it will be in accordance with the life lived, is not for that reason in any way putting in jeopardy the present verdict issued over faith and faith alone. Precisely because of what faith is—the result of the Spirit’s work, the sign of that Messiah-faithfulness which is the proper covenant badge—the verdict of the present is firm and secure. “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” Of course. Nothing that Paul says, or that I say, about future justification undermines that for a moment. The pardon is free, and it is firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it. It is everlasting. It will be reaffirmed on the last day—by which time, though you will not be fully perfect even at your death, the tenor and direction of your life, through the Spirit’s grace, will have been that patience in well-doing which seeks for glory, honor, and immortality. Following that final verdict, to quote another great hymn, we will be “more happy, but not more secure.” That is the truth of justification by faith in the present time, as Paul stresses in Romans 3.[3]

This, to me, is fine as it goes and is obviously supported everywhere in the NT (VanLandigham at least got this correct). But here come the Aristotelian trained critics who realize that if final justification/vindication is based on the obedience of the believer and not Christ’s complete work, then, it cannot be of grace (even after taking into account Wright’s pneumatic component). Take what Phil Johnson says in a blog post for Ligonier Ministries (which I take to be a good sample of the concern of many over Wright’s account) contra Wright:

That’s troubling for two reasons: first, it makes a person’s covenant faithfulness—obedience—the basis of final justification, thus grounding the ultimate declaration of righteousness in the believer’s own works, rather than grounding justification completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.[4]

Thus, for many, a final vindication of the believer in accord with their Spirited transformed life is a complete contradiction of justification based on the “finished work of Christ on our behalf” alone. It is, for them, an absolute either/or. And even if the works are given mention they are not in anyway soteriological, having had a bearing on the outcome itself and at best only serving as a witness of an election already given before time began.

However, as I see it, the either/or here (grace/works in the role of final vindication/justification) is not forced upon us by the Bible, but a restraining dualism in our epistemology that in a priori way rejects what Scripture seems to hold together and without apology to our desire for rationalistic satisfaction and consistency. In fact, this is when Torrance walks in and sits snuggly but cautiously next to Wright and Sanders on the one hand and rather suspiciously over against their critics on the other.

You see, I find in Torrance an epistemological answer to the discussion above. For starters, Torrance, I believe, would concede to the pattern of religion noted by Sanders, but would choose to state it in different, albeit theological[5] terms. Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” is for Torrance a “covenanted way of response,” but with some key differences. Elmer Colyer in his How To Read T.F. Torrance states:

Thus while the covenant involved God and Israel, it is a covenant of pure grace established by God in which God effects reconciliation with humanity at its worst in rebellion against God. Within the conflict between God and Israel, God provides Israel with a covenanted way of response in the ordinances of worship and liturgies of atoning sacrifices so that the Israelites could come before God, receive forgiveness and restoration to covenant partnership with God, and fulfill Israel’s vicarious priestly mission in history.[6]

What is important to note is, that for Torrance, “pure grace” within the covenant does not mean “less of man” or less of Israel, but “all of Israel” in their appointed worship and ordained liturgical service. Torrance is not following logico-casual reasoning, but using the “inner logic of grace” supplied by the vicarious humanity of Christ (who is the embodied fulfillment and telos of the OT “covenanted way of response”) where the epistemological categories to work through human and divine agency are to be truly discovered—and where both are fully appreciated.

You see, Torrance is a critical-realist that believes objects of reality are truly knowable and afford their own conceptual matrix (and hence appropriate logical categories during the process) for those seeking to articulate their nature (kata physin); by the way, Torrance is simply following the same epistemological turn that science made when breaking free of the logico-casual boundaries of Newtonian physics following Einstein et al. In sum, if the question of grace and human works at the end of the age are going to be satisfactorily answered and accounted for, we have to do it within the categories that Scripture and Christ provide as the conceptual matrix. And not with Aristotelian categories and frameworks in hand (which give rise to polarized statements like Phil Johnson’s above).

The “inner-logic of grace” for taking into account the question of grace/works (at the end of the age, even at every point of the ordo salutis!) is to be discovered in the hypostatic union in Christ’s own person who is both fully divine and fully human. Remember, to say that Jesus is fully divine in no way diminishes his humanity; in Jesus’ own ontological existence “fully divine” and “fully human” coexist in all of their respective paradoxical glory and mystery and majesty.

Thus, when we employ the OT “covenanted way of response” in approximation with the hyspostatic union (“the inner logic of grace”) as the conceptual matrix for final vindication we will see that we won’t be forced to accept the false antithesis between Christ’s completed work and our works through and in relation to the Spirit which will both be present as the paradoxical axis for our final verdict. “All of grace” for the God of revelation and reconciliation does not mean “less of man” or much worse, “none of man,” but as Torrance would say, “all of man.”

In Jesus’ person, the place where his divinity upholds and accounts for and sustains his humanity, is the theo-logical and soterio-logical categories for noting that at the end of the age “all of grace” in light of Christ’s completed work through the Spirit will mean all of man’s works, all of man’s freedom, and all of man’s fulfillment of the law. Christ is, after all, as Torrance would say a “Personalizing Person” who, when he acts, gives rise to “humanized humans” whose humanity, and the works therein, will not be diminished a single degree in light of the cross, but will be gloriously accounted for and upheld. Where all of grace is proclaimed at the close of the age of sin and death there we shall also hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” I’m sure, Sanders, Wright, and Torrance could all toast to that!


[1] Some even prefer to call it Judiasm(s) to denote the multivalent nature of the way people applied this worldview/religion.

[2] E.P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pg. 422).

[3] N.T. Wright, Jusitifaction: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, Jets March 2011.

[4] Phil Johnson, What’s Wrong with Wright: Examining the New Perspective. I’m tempted to write a post about the cessation of Wright/wrong puns among bloggers and authors.

[5] As increasingly is being recognized, no one approaches a text with a theological tabula rasa, we all have theological and epistemological presuppositions in this regard.

[6] Elmer M. Coyler, How To Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2001), pg. 99.

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5 comments

  1. Larry,

    Thanks again for the great post!

    How do you think NT Wright would respond to how you have appropriated his work, and brought it into conversation with TFT; in particular with using the vicarious humanity of Christ and hypostatic union as the matrix for understanding how ‘works’ work in salvation?

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  2. Clever post 😉 My guess is that Wright would inwardly and spiritually like the use of VHC, but would outwardly and visibly excuse himself to play pool, order another round, admire the bikes outside, pay the jukebox, etc to avoid committing to a transposition of his ‘biblical theology’ argument into even a congenial systematic language.

    At some point his justification perspective blurs into his reparation one. On one hand, he says that God will fix the world; on the other hand, he says that Jesus’s victory motivates the believer to persevere in good works in hard times. Is the relation between fruity believers and the world being ‘put to rights’ a clear one?

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  3. Hi Bowman,

    Thanks for your follow up email with me, I like knowing who I am engaging with here, and so your follow up helps :-).

    For Wright, in re to your second paragraph above, I don’t think so; and that’s why I think Larry’s proposal about Wright needing something like what TFT offers in his work is clearly needed.

    And I agree that NTW would probably be troubled about employing too much dogmatically inspired thinking. Of course, he already does employ dogmatic thinking in his usage of covenant as interpretively regulative as he does ;-).

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