Review: By Faith, Not By Sight, by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.


As I began preparing to teach a class on the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP), I made use of a number of sources to guide my research. Most of my sources were coming from a broadly confessional Reformed perspective, and one stood out as especially worthy of mention. At only 125 pages, Richard Gaffin’s By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (P&R, 2013) was certainly a quick read; I managed to finish it in only three days. Further, Dr. Gaffin (emeritus professor of biblical and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) is known for being a trusted mediating voice in modern Reformed controversies.[1] This book was originally presented as a series of four lectures at Oak Hill Theological College in London, then went through a first printing, and finally underwent revision in a second edition with a new foreword by Mark Jones, who provides some valuable historical-theological background as a complement to Gaffin’s work (I would also point readers to Jones’s recent series on Reformation21 related to this subject).

Gaffin’s primary goal in this book is to show the integral relationship between historia salutis (biblical theology) and ordo salutis (systematic theology) within the apostle Paul’s thought. To state this differently, Gaffin seeks to show how Paul ties together redemption accomplished in history with redemption applied in the present. Although the Reformed tradition has always acknowledged the importance of both of these themes, it hasn’t always succeeded in maintaining a balance between them. Especially since the twentieth century, and with the rise of historical criticism, many have begun to question the value of looking for an ordo salutis in Paul at all. NPP scholars have sometimes argued that Reformation-era questions about “how I get to heaven when I die” would have been foreign to Paul’s own concerns. Instead, it is alleged, Paul was primarily concerned with how God’s people would be identified in a new era of salvation history. In response, Gaffin argues that this is not a matter of either/or but of both/and (and thankfully, some NPP scholars such as N.T. Wright have begun to appreciate this fact as well). One finds both individual/soteriological and corporate/historical dimensions to Paul’s theology. But this does raise a number of questions.

One such question (which has been asked repeatedly throughout the history of Protestantism) is, is there a “center” to Paul’s theology? Gaffin argues that there indeed is, but it is not justification by faith alone, as many Protestants have understandably but mistakenly claimed. Rather, Gaffin shows that every time Paul gives a summary statement of the gospel, it includes a reference to the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Thus Gaffin generally agrees with the emerging scholarly consensus that the center of Paul’s theology is historia salutis. However, the eschatological reality of Christ’s finished work cannot be divorced from our union with him. Paul repeatedly states that Christ died for our sins, and we cannot understand Christ’s work apart from the universal problem that it solves. This is one area where, according to Gaffin, some NPP scholars have missed a crucial point in Paul’s thinking. By focusing exclusively on covenantal categories—that is, who does or doesn’t belong to God’s people—they miss the cosmic (and consequently personal) significance of Christ’s saving work.

So while we can discern a redemptive-historical center to Paul’s thought, this is inextricably tied to our Spirit-wrought union with Christ. Gaffin demonstrates that there are in fact three dimensions to this union: (1) a predestinarian union, in which we are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), (2) a redemptive-historical or past union accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection, and (3) a present union applied to us through the Spirit (42). Students of John Frame will doubtlessly notice a perspectival triad here: our union with Christ has normative, situational, and existential aspects. Specifically regarding our present/existential union, Gaffin follows the thought of John Murray in affirming both a legal/representative aspect and a mystical/spiritual aspect. These aspects in turn correspond to our justification and our sanctification, which answer respectively to the problem of sin’s guilt and its corruption.

Gaffin also stresses the centrality of faith for our union with Christ, and in doing so he touches on an element of Paul’s theology that I had never considered before. He points to the verse from which the book’s title is derived: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We Protestants are so accustomed to thinking of faith in terms of its contrast to works, that we may overlook this equally significant contrast between faith and sight. This antithesis provides a key to understanding Paul’s anthropology. Consider also 2 Cor. 4:16, which weds the eschatological tension of the “now” and the “not yet” to Paul’s view of the self: “Therefore we do not despair. Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7). According to Gaffin, this distinction between the “outer man” and the “inner man” should not be confused with the old man-new man distinction found elsewhere in Paul (Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9-10). The outer self refers not to our former identity as rebellious children of wrath, but rather to that visible part of ourselves that has not (yet) fully experienced the benefits of our union with Christ. It is a contrast between the heart—the invisible, pre-functional disposition of the believer—and the body—the visible, functional disposition of the believer (61-67).

This distinction sheds light on a question often raised in NPP debates: is there a second justification awaiting believers at the final judgment? Gaffin argues that there is, in a certain sense (95-96). However, we must be careful to explain exactly what we mean by that. Gaffin states that it is better to see this future justification simply as the visible demonstration of our present justification by faith. He thus disagrees with N.T. Wright’s construal of a future justification “on the basis of the entire life lived.”[2] The ground of our justification is always and only the obedience and righteousness of Christ, but the future dimension of our justification differs in that our Spirit-wrought good works will serve as the public evidence of our right standing before God. It will be a final judgment “according to” works but not “on the basis of” works (in Greek terms, kata but not dia/ek; cf. Rom. 2:6-13). Or as Gaffin puts it, we are presently justified by faith, but not (yet) by sight (105).

It is also worth mentioning Gaffin’s understanding of imputation, another much-debated point between Reformed and NPP scholars. Gaffin is quite clear that imputation is essential to understanding how justification takes place. He sets forth three logical alternatives: the ground of our justification is either (1) the obedience and righteousness of Christ, or (2) the union itself, or (3) the obedience produced in the believer by the Sprit through this union. Neither option 2 or 3 is tenable; Paul insists that it is a person that justifies us, not a relationship as an abstract entity, and our justification is tied to forgiveness through the Cross rather than to the Spirit’s work within us (58). I would add that Gaffin does not here enter into debates about the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, so readers should look elsewhere for more on that subject.[3]

To summarize, Gaffin presents us with a sustained defense of John Calvin’s classic duplex gratia (twofold grace) as it is found in Paul’s theology. Being united to Christ by faith, we receive both the forensic grace of justification and the renovative grace of sanctification. These blessings must be distinguished, but they cannot be separated; we are united either to all of Christ or to none of him. What Gaffin adds to this picture is a reflection on Paul’s inner man/outer man anthropology as it relates to this union. With respect to our inward selves, we enjoy fully and irrevocably the benefits of a saving relationship with Christ. But what we enjoy inwardly by faith is not (yet) fully manifest by sight. As we struggle in the eschatological tension between the now and the not yet, we await the the day when believers shall be “openly acknowledged and acquitted” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 38). On that day, our outer selves will be renewed fully, and Christ will be acknowledged as Lord over all.

Gaffin offers us a brilliant piece of systematic theology in a concise and accessible fashion, and I am sure that I will continue to return to this book for years to come. It does not answer every question, and some issues are left frustratingly underdeveloped. But Gaffin succeeds in tying together confessional fidelity with fresh insight, presenting us with a grid for viewing Paul’s thought as an elegant and harmonious whole. Though Gaffin admits that he does not primarily have in mind a scholarly audience, I believe this book is well suited for pastors and seminarians.


[1] For more on the history of these controversies, see William B. Evans, “Déjà Vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,” Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 135-51.

[2] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Eerdmans, 1997), 129. Wright himself has equivocated a bit in his language regarding the role of works at the final judgment, and his distance from confessional Reformed orthodoxy on this point might not be as wide as it once was.

[3] For a modern treatment of the active obedience of Christ, I would recommend Michael Bird’s essay in Justification: Five Views, edited by James Beilby (IVP, 2011). For a treatment of the debate in historical perspective, see Robert Letham’s The Westminster Assembly (P&R, 2009).

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

One Response to “Review: By Faith, Not By Sight, by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.”

  1. As noted in another post I rail against active obedience as part of justification, Largely because it places justification where Scripture doesn’t. It places it in the life of Christ whereas Scripture emphatically places it in the death of Christ. Or better still, it places it in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is an emphasis in Gaffin I find heartening. Michael Bird to my mind gets the issue of IAO right.

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