1 Those whom God effectually calls he also freely justifies.1 He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting them as righteous,2 not for anything done in them or by them, but for Christ’s sake alone.3
The doctrine of justification lies at the very heart of the gospel we preach. If we get this wrong, then we are preaching a different gospel than what Scripture does and therefore a gospel that does not lead to salvation. This was one of the crucial issues that led men like Luther to depart from the Catholic Church and begin the Protestant Reformation. Summary statements of complicated issues can be misleading, but to get a feel for the difference in Catholic and Reformed teaching on this issue we offer one. According to Catholic theology when a man is justified he is made righteous, and according to Reformed teaching he is declared righteous.
Catholics hold that “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1989) and that “It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy” (section 1992). When we are justified then, we actually become just because righteousness is infused into our soul. The implications of this understanding are important for our growth in Christian living, and specifically for the good works that we do. Catholics seem to agree that we cannot merit God’s favor, but that is true only to a certain extent. They teach that “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” (Section 2010). By grace God makes us righteous and then as righteous people we can earn or merit more grace so that we can grow in holiness and finally gain eternal life. God gets us started by purifying our hearts, then we must make use of this newfound holiness to get even further in the Christian life and finally finish having done enough that God will judge we have merited heaven. For Catholics then, grace is necessary but not sufficient for salvation. Grace is needed, but something more is required, namely, the good works of a man made righteous by God. Reformed doctrine on the other hand says that grace is not only necessary for salvation, but that it is also sufficient for it. This is the substance of the Reformers insistence that salvation is by grace alone.
We hold that justification does not in itself produce any inward change in us, but is the effect of God’s judicial decree that we are free from the law’s condemnation because of what Christ has done for us. We are justified when God pardons our sins and accepts us into fellowship with him on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus. Justification is a work of grace from beginning to end. Catholics would seem to agree that it begins as a work of grace but insist that to maintain our position as justified people works are a requirement.
Unfortunately, the attacks on the doctrine of justification by faith alone faced by the evangelical church today do not come from the Catholic church alone. There is a growing current of thought that holds Paul’s doctrine of justification was not developed against the backdrop of legalism, but of Jewish exclusivism. What this meant was that Paul was not even dealing with the concept of works-righteousness in formulating his doctrine of justification. As a matter of fact, the book of Galatians, often seen as crucial for understanding that justification is by faith alone, is not even about how a man can be made right with God, but is rather about how we define what a Christian is. The ‘works of the law’ that Paul so bitterly argues against are things like circumcision and dietary regulations that mark Jews as different from Gentiles and thus serve to divide the church. Justification apart from the works of the law then means only that anyone can be drawn into the fellowship of God’s people even without being circumcised or observing the Sabbath. When all this is brought to bear on our understanding of justification what it means is that the Reformers got it all wrong. Paul was not even talking about grace vs law when he was expounding his understanding of what it meant to be justified. When he said we are justified apart from the ‘works of the law’ he was not talking about be saved without any good works to our credit, but was only saying that membership in the covenant community of the saved did not depend on being Jewish. Paul therefore did not rule out works as playing a role in a man being found in a right relationship with God, that is, justification is not by faith alone. A man may enter the covenant relationship with God on the basis of faith, but he stays in on the basis of works also. The end result of what is being taught is not new. What is new is that through the efforts of a man like N. T. Wright, a theologian with some conservative credentials, this kind of thinking has begun to make its way even into churches in the Reformed tradition.
They are not justified because God imputes as their righteousness either their faith itself, or the act of believing, or any other act of obedience to the gospel. They are justified by God imputing Christ’s active obedience to the whole law and his passive obedience in death. By faith they receive and rest on his righteousness, and this faith they do no have of themselves for it is the gift of God.4
To stand before God as righteous on Judgment Day requires a righteousness that is gained through good works. We believe that we gain this righteousness on the basis of our standing in Christ who alone is righteous. The good works that are required for entry to eternal glory are his good works. We are accounted righteous in God’s eyes not because we have believed in Jesus or been baptized or been obedient in any respect, but solely on the basis of Christ’s obedience alone. We do not merit heaven by our good works, even good works that we confess can be accomplished only on the basis of God’s grace. Eternal life is ours because of Christ’s righteousness and nothing else. For this reason faith for eternal life is directed solely towards Christ, and not towards the works or experiences of the believer. This is one of those areas where the ‘new perspective’ is very clear in its rejection of the traditional Protestant understanding of justification, for they reject the idea that God as judge can simply impute, or credit to our account, the perfect righteousness of Christ. If the notion of imputation is rejected, then an important question that arises for those seeking to be relieved of their burden of sin is, How does Jesus bear my sin? Protestants have held that as our sins are imputed to Jesus so that he bears their penalty, we bear his righteousness and its reward.
There are two aspects of the obedience Christ rendered in procuring our righteousness: his active obedience (what he did) and his passive obedience (what was done to him). With regard to the first aspect Christ perfectly obeyed the entire divine law: there was not a jot or tittle of the law he left undone. With regard to the second aspect he served as the perfect sacrifice for sin, the once for all sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. Because of his obedience the law is no longer a threat to eternal life for the believer. Its penalty against our sin has been paid and its demand for perfect obedience is met for us as we take our stand in Christ. This gives us great assurance concerning our salvation. And so that we do not start to think we have even a small role in all this so that we can claim come credit for our salvation, we are reminded that even the faith needed to accept Christ’s work for salvation is a gift of God.
2 Faith which receives and rests on Christ and his righteousness is the sole instrument of justification.5
Catholic theologians say that the justification received by grace at baptism must be perfected by works afterwards. The Reformers insisted that salvation was by faith alone. Faith alone apart from any works is the sole basis for our righteousness before God. What we receive from God when he pronounces us righteous cannot be perfected for it is already perfect being based on the perfect obedience of our Savior.
We must be clear about what faith as the means of justification, or being saved by faith, means. When we say that we are saved by faith we do not mean that the act of faith saves us. “It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ. It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or the nature of faith, but in the object of faith” (Warfield in Reymond). Faith is not our part that we add to the work of Christ so that we can be saved, it is the conduit used by God to save us. Any other means would have involved human works and human merit. Salvation is by faith because this alone makes it entirely a work of grace (Rom 4:16).
Yet it is never alone in the person justified, but is always accompanied by all the other saving graces; it is not a dead faith, for it functions by love.7
The fear of many that this teaching would lead to a lawless lifestyle is misguided because the teaching of this confession in line with that of Scripture is that the grace of justification is always accompanied by all other saving graces: goodness, self-control, perseverance, love, etc. The grace of God that brings new life and saving faith inevitably produces fruit in the soil of that new life. The new creation God brings about in a justified man will always be brought to completion because God never fails to finish what he begins. We teach that salvation is by grace apart from the law, not that the life of the saved person is lawless.
3 By his obedience and death, Christ fully discharged the debt of all those who are justified. By his sacrifice in the blood of his cross, he underwent in their place the penalty due to them, so making an appropriate, real, and full satisfaction of God’s justice on their behalf.7
As we have already seen in the section on Christ the Mediator, our Lord has provided the basis for our justification by means of his active and passive obedience, that is, his perfect obedience to the law and his death on the cross for our sins (sections 4 and 5). Christ’s active and passive obedience are not two distinct works, but his one work for our salvation viewed from different perspectives. His passive obedience describes his suffering of the penalty of the law needed for us to enjoy the forgiveness of the guilt of our sins. His active obedience describes his perfect obedience to the law and will of God necessary to offer us positive righteousness. The full penalty for all of our sins, past, present and future has been paid so that the forgiveness God offers us is not capricious or impulsive. He is not like a judge who acknowledges that a man is a murderer and deserves death but is to be freed anyway because he sympathizes with the criminal’s predicament. God’s justice remains intact because the full weight of his divine wrath against our sins fell on Jesus at Calvary.
Yet their justification is entirely of free grace, because he was given by the Father for them,8 and his obedience and satisfaction was accepted in their place,9 both actions being done freely, and not because of anything in them.10 So both the exact justice and the rich grace of God are glorified in the justification of sinners.11
Our justification is not something that was forced upon God because he owed us something. He was not obligated to offer us a means to salvation after the fall because this was a world of his making and it was the only fair thing to do. That justification is fully a matter of grace can be seen first in the fact that Jesus’ coming into the world was a gift. He chose to leave his heavenly glory and assume the role the Father had by his own free choice appointed him to fill. Furthermore, it is due only to his grace that some were chosen from among fallen mankind to receive the benefits of Christ’s obedience (Effectual Calling, section 2). Finally, justification is purely a matter of grace because there is nothing in the life of those who are justified that merits this wonderful gift. We can see therefore in the obedient life and death of Jesus the fully glory of God’s perfect justice and great grace.
4 From all eternity God decreed to justify all the elect,12 and Christ in the fullness of time died for their sins, and rose again for their justification.13 Nevertheless they are not justified personally until the Holy Spirit in due time actually applies Christ to them.14
13 Ga 4:4, 1 Ti 2:5-6, Ro 4:25
14 Col 1:21-22, Ga 2:16, Tit 3:4-7, Eph 2:1-3
God’s decision and decree to save the elect was made in eternity, but they were not justified then. There is a difference between God’s decree and the execution of that decree. Not until Christ had come in the fulness of time and died on the cross was there a basis for justification. Others say that we were justified from the time that Christ finished his work on the cross noting the past tenses used in verses like Rom 4:25, 2 Cor 5:21 and Heb 10:14. The error here is the failure to distinguish between the work of Christ, which is the basis for justification, and the work of the Holy Spirit, by which sinners are actually made righteous before God (cf. Col 1:21, Gal 2:16). Paul says to the Galatians “we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ” (Gal 2:16), so it is clear that faith comes before justification and we cannot have faith before we are born.
5 God continues to forgive the sins of those who are justified;15 and although they can never fall from the state of justification,16
The justification God gives is a once-for-all gift that can never be lost (Lk 22:32, Heb 10:14). One of the basic errors of Roman Catholicism is to confuse justification with sanctification. According to their teaching a man is “just” after he has received one of the sacraments (e.g. baptism). This legal standing can be partially or even totally destroyed by sin so that he needs to be justified again by God’s grace that comes through the sacraments. The Catholic understanding of mortal sin, in fact, leaves open the possibility of a man having lost the grace of justification but not true faith (Creeds, 418). We in the Reformed tradition would agree that sin impedes our progress in sanctification, but not that our legal standing before God as just in Christ and thus free from the threat of punishment can be destroyed. We would never say with the Roman Catholic church that a man stands before God without sin (after partaking in a sacrament), but only that he stands without the guilt of sin that demands condemnation.
yet they may fall under God’s fatherly displeasure because of their sins. In that condition they will not usually have fellowship with God restored to them until they humble themselves, confess their sins, ask for pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.17
The justified man needs to make repentance and confession a regular part of his daily life because sin remains with us as a part of our nature and behavior until death sets us free from this body of death. While the saints will not fall under God’s condemnation for their sin, they may fall under his fatherly displeasure and discipline. By his grace we will then be restored to faith and repentance and full fellowship once more.
6 The justification of believers under the Old Testament was in all these respects exactly the same as the justification of believers under the New Testament.18
Because justification is based on the obedience of Christ which includes his death on our behalf, and because his perfect righteousness alone can satisfy God’s demands for justice, there could never be another means of justification. The saints of the Old Testament were justified by the work of Christ just as we are, the only difference being that their faith was in the one who would come to take away sin while ours is in the one who has come to take away sin. Even in the days of Moses the Law was not given as a means to justification, but only as a means of helping man to see his sin and his need for a Savior.