Rainbow knows he is treading on delicate ground by attempting a redefinition of justification; his forceful statement of the problem belies an underlying orthodoxy, which he wisely takes great pains to establish in his early chapters. In “Two Covenants,” he takes eight pages to reaffirm the traditional contrast between the “new covenant” and the “old covenant,” which he identifies very closely with the Law itself. According to Rainbow, the grace that was present in the Mosaic system has now abandoned it, so that what would have been appropriate before (zealous adherence to the Law’s demands) is no longer appropriate. This is similar to Schreiner’s view in his The Law and Its Fulfillment, where he posits a “salvation-historical shift” centered around the death and resurrection of Christ.
Rainbow’s chapter on Justification (imputation) is a concise yet thorough restatement of the traditional understanding of justification, based on the Pauline writings which shaped it. Christ’s “alien” righteousness is imputed to us by God’s grace; we receive it through faith. It is totally forensic in nature and represents no actual change in the believer. It is a status change before God alone; in this he directly opposes Dunn, who has historically emphasized the social aspect – justification as assimilation into God’s covenant people. (His view has become more nuanced of late, though.)
After he passes this test of orthodoxy, as it were, he goes on to state the basic problem with the truncated Lutheran view of justification that excludes the role of Christian obedience in salvation: antinomianism. Even in the days of Paul there were those who took his gospel as license to abandon ethical mores. Several significant passages in the writings of James, Peter, John, Jude, and Paul himself are brought to bear against this dangerous teaching. Rainbow’s solution is the doctrine of regeneration: when we are justified, we are also given new life. In this new life, our regenerated will becomes a second cause along with God’s grace – the first cause – that induces us to good works. “The human imperative is grounded in a prior divine indicative.” This is Rainbow’s essential construction for allowing “good works” (which Rainbow contrasts with “works of the law”) to have an important role in salvation while avoiding Pelagianism.
The practical upshot of this doctrine is that obedience is not secondary or optional any more than it effects salvation. Both justification and regeneration are ours because of our identification with Christ; one is not subsidiary to the other, but both come from God and both are necessary. I am reminded of N. T. Wright’s analogy (Justification): like the steering wheel is to the car, justification is but one part (yet such an important part!) of the salvation process.
“The ongoing debate between ‘free grace’ and ‘lordship evangelism’ does not, at bottom, pose for us a choice between pure divine grace and an admixture with works of the fallen human nature. Seen correctly, the choice is between a divine grace limited to charity alone and a divine grace which transforms as well. When the alternatives are framed in these Pauline categories, the correct choice becomes obvious, and the debate should lie down to rest.” Paul Rainbow, The Way of Salvation.
Rainbow continues the fight against antinomianism in his chapter on sanctification. He eviscerates the dismal view of Christian righteousness espoused by the early Reformers, as well as the Dispensational doctrine of the perennially “carnal” Christian, who is saved from punishment despite a complete lack of spiritual growth. Through careful exegesis of Romans 7:7-25 he proves that it refers to Adamic, fleshy man – not to the Christian. The Christian has victory – total, mighty victory over sin in this life. While our complete perfection awaits in the Resurrection, we have all the power of God to defeat sin and do good works – not the “filthy rags” of the fallen nature, but the very works of Christ, with Whom we have been identified.
In the next part of my review I will get into the meat of Rainbow’s thesis – that justification has an eschatological component. So far he has done superbly, except that he has left out any guidance or definition for exactly what constitutes “good works” or “ethical mores.” Will he identify the demands of the Law exclusively with the old covenant? Or will he acknowledge that the Law’s demands are the same moral code the believer accomplishes in the Spirit? He has hinted at the latter, but seems to be leaning toward the former. I am withholding my judgment on the book as a whole until I find out, though either way it is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate, and I recommend picking it up while you still can.