Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on Justification

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“It is especially Paul, however, who puts justification in the foreground and works out its richest and deepest implications. This is undoubtedly connected with his own life experience. Having been a Pharisee, he had in all seriousness and with passionate zeal striven for a righteousness of his own based on observing the law. But when it pleased God to reveal his Son to him, he saw the vanity of this attempt and sought his righteousness in God through Christ Jesus alone. Yet also as a Christian Paul remains faithful to the forensic scheme. He does not fight the idea that God is just and that salvation can be obtained only through righteousness. After coming to the faith, however, he differs from his earlier contemporaries about the way righteousness and salvation can become ours. He combats Jewish nomism because, on account of sin, no flesh can be justified by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20; 8:3; Gal. 2:16); because then humans would always remain servants and be able to boast before God of their merits (Rom. 4:2, 5; Gal. 3:24-26; 4:1-7; cf. 1 Cor. 1:29; 4:7); in other words, humans would then live and labor for their own interest and make God subservient to it. Hence Paul rejects the nomistic ethical principle and squarely bases himself on the religious position. But that does not alter the fact that the law as such is holy and just and good (Rom 7:12, 14; 1 Tim. 1:8; cf. also Rom. 3:31; 8:4; 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14). If there had not been sin, therefore, therefore it [the law] would also have been able to grant life through works (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). But what the law by its very nature cannot do is grant forgiveness, which is precisely what we need. Paul, accordingly, while he does fight Jewish nomism, maintains the righteousness of God and proceeds from it in his soteriology. He takes a theocentric position, in which God does not exist for humankind but humankind for God, and communion with God is not the result of our exertion but God’s free and unmerited gift.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. IV, p. 183-84

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