Gospel Truth of Justification: Proclaimed, Defended, Developed, David J. Engelsma. Reviewed by Rev. Martin VanderWal

Gospel Truth of Justification: Proclaimed, Defended, Developed, David J. Engelsma. Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2017, 528 pages. [Reviewed by Rev. Martin VanderWal, pastor of Wingham, ON PRC.]

Thoroughly grounded and rooted is Gospel Truth of Justification by David J. Engelsma. Thoroughly grounded and rooted in Scripture, the book presents a strong and beautiful garden for every lover of the grace of God to enjoy. This is not a garden of flowers that live and die according to their seasons, but it is a garden of a tree of life that yields all manner of fruit. Deliciously sweet and nutritious are many kinds of fruits in this garden. Fruits abound of confidence, of comfort and assurance, of good works, and of everlasting peace with God. It is a garden to live in, and a garden to die in.

Because this garden is rooted and grounded in the truth of God’s Word, it also means that it is surrounded by a wall with its foundations dug deeply into that same ground. The wall is immoveable, both dividing and distinguishing. The wall makes clear distinction between the living good within the garden and the evil decay that is without. And without is plenty of decay and ruin.

Engelsma’s work is also a thorough survey of this dark realm outside the boundary of Scripture and the confessions. The reader is brought to see not only how widespread the errors of legalism and works-righteousness are, but also their common roots of callous contempt for Scripture and the Reformed confessions and an evil yearning for the gates of Rome and its papal throne.

The believing reader, enjoying the fruit of this garden of grace, will appreciate the way the author presents the powerful relationship between Scripture and the creeds of the Protestant Reformation on the topic of justification. He shows how thoroughly these creeds are rooted in Scripture and that they speak with one voice on the subject of justification by faith alone, based on the righteousness of Christ alone without the works of men in any sense.

Just as vigorously as the above is prosecuted, so vigorously is it applied to the present controversy over justification. On the basis of Scripture and the confessions, N.T. Wright is shown to be wrong and the doctrines of the Federal Vision and the conditional covenant are completely demolished. Manifold, carefully selected quotations from the proponents of these heresies constantly ensure that Engelsma is attacking no straw men of his own devising. The book is thus a powerful friend to the gospel, and in the power of that friendship is a bitter, unrelenting foe to its enemies.

The vast importance of this work is highly positive, however. First, Gospel Truth of Justification demonstrates the wonderful value of the true doctrine of justification. It alone brings peace with God and the true joy of salvation. It alone provides peace of conscience and heart before the judgment seat of God. The blessed fruit of assurance and the powerful motive of gratitude for a life of true godliness are made to stand alone upon the gift of the righteousness of Christ.

Second, the book develops doctrines related to justification. With this development it has much to contribute to the body of Reformed dogma. Two matters contend for the highest place for this contribution. One is the development of the doctrine of eternal justification and its relationship to predestination. Confusion is taken away by placing justification in the forum of the conscience, first, according to the emphasis of the gospel itself, and then making subservient to that mode of justification the work of the cross and God’s eternal decree to justify the elect in Christ. This development highlights the point of gracious justification without works: the assurance the believer possesses and enjoys in his conscience through faith alone in Christ.

The other contribution is closely related: a thorough and masterful presentation of the truth of Christ’s headship in the covenant of grace and its necessary relationship to justification. Positively, this presentation highlights the wonderful unity of Scripture and the gospel of Scripture. Negatively, it demonstrates the serious damage that is done to Scripture and the gospel when the doctrine of the covenant is separated from election and the headship of Christ.

Gospel Truth of Justification contains a wealth of insightful, penetrating statements such as these:

The new perspective [on Paul] is not able to penetrate to the heart of Paul’s doctrine of justification: God justifies “the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). (31)

If evangelicals and Roman Catholics do not agree on imputation, they do not agree on justification. To affirm oneness on the doctrine, in spite of this fundamental disagreement, is a lie at best. At worst, it is the evangelical capitulation to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as infusion. (54)

This confusion [between sanctification with justification] is not harmless. It prevents the publican from going down to his home justified. It is attempted robbery of the people of God of their joy and peace. It detracts from the obedience of Jesus Christ as the complete righteousness of the believing sinner, as though the obedience of the sinner must be added to the obedience of Jesus for the sinner’s righteousness with God. (112–13)

The theology of the federal vision, which is essentially the ugly Arminian whore beautified in covenantal dress for contemporary seduction of Reformed churches, denies the teaching of Dordt and Westminster that the state of justification cannot be forfeited or lost. (230)

The great value of the book is its bold, incisive, and decisive character. It consistently follows a straight line between truth and error. That straight line runs clearly out of Holy Scripture throughout the whole book. It is also cause for sorrow that this delineating character is missing not only from so many works devoted to the same subject, but also from theological conversations of every kind and in the decisions of deliberative assemblies in so many Presbyterian and Reformed churches far and near.

The host of errors described in this book and the vast company of the promoters and adherents of these errors must give every believer pause for thought. How can the very heart of the gospel be so abused and even vilified, such contempt and scorn heaped on it? For what mess of pottage is such a birthright sold? Only the most distressing answer is given: The pride of man and the refuge promised by Rome. Gone is all the righteousness of Christ. Gone with that righteousness is all true peace, all comfort and hope, all true godliness and good works. One cannot but see the mighty hand of God’s judgment in all this.

There are several points of criticism of Gospel Truth of Justification of which the reader should be aware. The first is that the book suffers significantly from repetition. Illustrations, distinct points, and comparisons appear time and again in its pages. While each point of repetition has its fitting place in the surrounding context, the flavor given to the book is that of a collection of essays, which detracts from the hard-hitting unity of its overall character.

The second is that the reader will run across sentences that are difficult to read and understand. While patient re-reading of these sentences will yield clarity, such sentences interrupt the flow of thought and soften the impact of the points being made. However, these difficult sentences in no way detract from the overall clarity of the book.

In summary, Gospel Truth of Justification is of inestimable value to the Reformed reader who wishes to grow in knowledge of and appreciation for this precious truth, which is at the heart of the gospel. May this outstanding work serve to keep the faithful church of Jesus Christ within the walls of her garden given by her God, enjoying the blessed fruit of this gospel truth to the glory and praise of her Lord, with never a thought of venturing out into the darkness and ruin outside its walls!