Salvation - Justification by Faith

Did Jesus Need to be Justified as Sinners Do?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
In recent years a false teaching has gained prominence which says that salvation is through "solidarity" with Christ.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

January 2017 - In recent years a false teaching has gained prominence which says that people are saved through "solidarity" with Jesus Christ. This teaching incorporates deadly heresy concerning the doctrine of justification.

According to a December 2016 interview Dr. Richard Gaffin, a major long-time proponent of this falsehood, remains unrepentant. If you find this doctrinal deviancy in your church, head for the exits without delay.1


This false teaching first came to light in the classrooms of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and in a book called Resurrection and Redemption by Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., long-time chairman of its Department of Theology. The book was the republication of Gaffin's doctoral thesis, for which Professor Norman Shepherd, whose doctrinal deviancy we described in another article, was Gaffin's faculty advisor.

Existential Salvation Through Baptism

The main theme of Resurrection and Redemption is that people are saved, not through belief in Christ alone, but through an "existential" and "experiential" union through which believers achieve "solidarity" with Christ. (Gaffin uses these three terms frequently.) Gaffin states plainly that the instrument of this saving union is water baptism:

"Baptism signifies and seals a transition in the experience of the recipient, a transition from being (existentially) apart from Christ to being (existentially) joined to him. Galatians 3:27 is even more graphic: 'Those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ' (cf. I Cor. 12:13)."2

A few pages later Gaffin calls this "union with Christ" commencing with water baptism "the inception of the individual Christian existence, the moment of being joined existentially to Christ."3 In Gaffin's teaching, all of salvation - including redemption, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification - comes by means of this "union with Christ" through baptism.

In a December 2016 interview, Gaffin was asked, "Would you make any revisions to things that you have written or taught today, as your theology has developed over the years?" His answer was that "I've tried to listen carefully for correction to various criticisms of my views over the years and, more importantly, continually to Scripture, but I'm not aware of anything that requires substantive revision. So I won't be contributing to the 'How I Changed My Mind' genre."4

As one of many who have appealed to Dr. Gaffin to change his aberrant views to conform to Scripture, I can testify that he neither listens carefully to such appeals nor cares about the corrective of Scripture, but insists upon sending God's Word through the meat-grinder of his own neo-legalistic matrix. Gaffin advances what amounts to a form of apostolic succession, as I described in this article - with himself as a successor of the apostles.

We Participate in Christ's Justification?

As part of the structure of this teaching, Gaffin redefines the doctrine of justification. He claims that Christ Himself was justified, and that Christians are justified by participating in Christ's own justification through union with Him in baptism.5 He insists that the word "justified" as applied to Christ in 1 Timothy 3:16 (where we read that He was "justified in the Spirit") must have the same meaning that it does when applied to sinful men in passages such as Romans 4:25, where we read that Christ was "raised for our justification." Gaffin says that "to eliminate the usual forensic, declarative meaning" of "justified" when interpreting 1 Timothy 3:16 "is wrong." "The constitutive, transforming action of the resurrection is specifically forensic in character. It is Christ's justification."6

What is wrong with these teachings? There are several serious problems, and they all strike at the heart of the Gospel.

Another Gospel

First and most obviously, salvation by "existential" and "experiential" union with Christ through baptism is not the way of salvation that Scripture teaches. This is "another gospel" (Galatians 1:6-10). In Resurrection and Redemption Gaffin often speaks of "believers" but hardly ever speaks of faith. This is telling. In his system, "belief" is not a matter of believing Biblical propositions but of experiential "uniting".

In contrast, the Scriptures unambiguously teach that salvation is by the instrument of unadorned faith. Faith means believing that the Gospel of salvation by the merits of Christ alone is true. Faith looks entirely away from human effort to the full sufficiency of Jesus Christ. Faith itself is the gift of God, and not of works. We have no reason to boast of our faith, much less of our baptism. Baptism signifies our relationship with Christ; it is not the instrument by which we are united to Him.

Echoes of Rome

Secondly, Gaffin's teachings coincide to an alarming degree with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. Rome also teaches that union with Christ through baptism is the way of salvation, and it condemns those who teach otherwise.7 Rome teaches that baptism marks the transition from death to life, and that baptism effects union with Christ, "a permanent community of man with God."8 Rome teaches that justification "cannot, according to Christ's precept, be effected except at the fountain of regeneration, that is, by the baptism of water."9

The Justifier Didn't Need to be Justified

Thirdly, Gaffin makes the sinless Christ the recipient of the saving acts of God that only sinners need to receive. As one critic has put it, Gaffin's theology makes Jesus little more than the first Christian. Gaffin speaks of the "passivity" of Christ and of His "solidarity with believers."9 But Christ the Redeemer did not need to be redeemed. Christ the Justifier did not need to be justified as sinners do. Jesus was declared to be the Righteous One, not because the righteousness of another was imputed to Him, but because He was the only man ever to possess a righteousness of His own. His sinless life, perfect atonement, and resurrection from the dead demonstrated that fact.

Gaffin, contrary to this, bases his doctrine of justification largely on a wrong interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:16, where we read that Christ was "justified in the Spirit." Protestant exegetes, comparing Scripture with Scripture, have long understood that the usage of the word "justified" in this verse (edikaiothe, "was declared righteous") must of necessity be different when applied to the sinless Son of God than when it is applied to sinful men.

The key is that Paul declares that Jesus Christ was not declared righteous by the law, or through the imputed righteousness of another, but in the Spirit. This means that His assertion that He is the Son of God was justified or proved true by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him at His baptism, the miracles that He performed, the perfect life that He lived, and His resurrection from the dead. In Matthew 3:16 the Spirit testifies to the deity of Christ. In Romans 1:4 Christ is "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness." Numerous passages, many in Isaiah, declare Christ to be the promised Holy One, who even the demons acknowledged (Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34) but the nation of Israel denied (Acts 3:14). Because Jesus Christ is the Holy One of Israel, He did not need to be justified as sinners do. As Zechariah declares, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just, and having salvation" (Zechariah 9:9).

Salvation is a Legal Matter - But It's Not a Merger, It's a Criminal Case

Fourthly, but certainly not least, Gaffin's way of salvation makes redemption depend on something other than the perfect righteousness of Christ, the alien righteousness that is imputed to, not infused into, those who believe the Gospel. Instead, Gaffin substitutes existential, experiential union with Christ - "the solidarity factor" as he calls it - a merger of sinners and Christ.

Our salvation is a legal matter - but not, as Gaffin teaches, the cosmic equivalent of a corporate merger. Rather, our salvation concerns a criminal case of universal proportions. Mankind has been found guilty before the judgment bar of God, and is under the sentence of eternal death. But God's only Son has paid the death penalty for sinners as an innocent substitute. The Apostle Paul's doctrinal exposition, beginning in Romans 5 and continuing into chapter 6, is not that believers are united "existentially" or "experientially" with Christ, but legally. As the late Dr. John W. Robbins wrote, believers are united to Christ legally,

because Jesus Christ is the legal representative of and substitute for His people, the federal head of His race.... What Jesus Christ did in his life, death, and resurrection is imputed to believers, as if they had done it, and their sins are imputed to Him as if he had done them. Believers do not die with Christ "existentially" or "experientially," but legally. They do not possess Christ's perfect righteousness "in the inner man." Christ's righteousness is imputed, not infused. His act and righteousness are legally, not experientially, theirs. Their sins are legally, not experientially, his. Christ's suffering and death are imputed to believers, and we are freed from the penalty of death for our sins. By substituting "existential" and "experiential" union with Christ for the Biblical doctrines of intellectual and legal union, Gaffin has fabricated an entirely un-Biblical soteriology. Tragically, he has [and others taught by him have] been indoctrinating future pastors in this heterodox nonsense for at least three decades.11

We see the results in many churches today. Christian, be on the lookout for this kind of teaching in your church. And if you find it, head for the exits.




1. Some material in this article is adapted from Paul M. Elliott, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism: The Spiritual Crisis in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Beyond (Unicoi, Tennesse: The Trinity Foundation, 2005), pages 146-161.

2. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), 50-51. Emphasis and parentheses in the original.

3. Gaffin, page 58.

4. Nick Batzig, "Today's Theologians: Dr. Richard Gaffin" as viewed on 12/28/2016 at The Aquila Report,

5. Gaffin, pages 119-124.

6. Gaffin, page 121. Note that in Gaffin's soteriology "justification" is both "constitutive" and "transforming," as well as "forensic." This is the view of both Roman Catholic theologians and the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, as Gaffin admits on page 131.

7. "Baptism" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton, 1907; 2003 Online Edition at; Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), 356.

8. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, page 251.

9. "Justification" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton, 1907; 2003 Online Edition at

10. Gaffin, page 65.

11. John W. Robbins. "In Christ," The Trinity Review, September 2004,


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