Interesting Insight from Charles Finney on Justification

In the lecture on justification in his Lectures on Systematic Theology Charles Finney uses the distinction between legislative, judicial, and executive functions of government to consider the doctrine of justification:

Justification is the pronouncing of one just. It may be done in words, or, practically, by treatment. Justification must be, in some sense, a governmental act; and it is of importance to a right understanding of gospel justification, to inquire whether it be an act of the judicial, the executive, or the legislative department of government; that is, whether gospel justification consists in a strictly judicial or forensic proceeding, or whether it consists in pardon, or setting aside the execution of an incurred penalty, and is therefore properly either an executive or a legislative act. We shall see that the settling of this question is of great importance in theology; and as we view this subject, so, if consistent, we must view many important and highly practical questions in theology.

Now, I’d never even considered that such a distinction in the roles of government might apply conceptually to the kingdom of God. But it seems to make some sense. For instance, while obeying the law gives life, the Bible also teaches that nobody will be justified by works of the law (for all sinned according to Romans 3:23). It also teaches that justification comes by faith, by grace, through Christ, and strangely enough, to those who are obedient to the law (Romans 2:13).

But with the exception of Romans 2:13, the meaning of which is contested, most other passages about justification (being declared righteous by God or the resumption of a properly ordered relationship with God) treat it as a rather personal reality (through grace, by faith, in Christ, etc). It’s not about whether or not somebody has done as much good as they can, because no matter how much good is done, guilt is still guilt. In Finney’s taxonomy, the judicial office of government is purely that of determining whether or not the law has been broken by this or that person. So for him, as far as the law goes, there can be no justification for anybody who has done anything wrong, ever (Romans 3:20 seems to say exactly this). But as far as appeal to the law-giver (legislator) or the branch of government responsible for action (executive) justification, pardon, and reconciliation are possible. So sinners cannot, by any means, appeal to the law for forgiveness (though the Law of Moses offers conditions of pardon, these do not come through the system of elders/judges). But sinners can appeal directly to the law-giver and king of God’s kingdom for forgiveness: a gracious and kind God.

But I’ve never seen this taxonomy God’s role in justification in a Bible commentary and I’d never noticed it from reading Scripture. This doesn’t mean that Finney is wrong, but it’s just gone unnoticed for a while, now.

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