In the editorial of February 1, 1999, I described ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) as a uniting of evangelicals and Roman Catholics for fellowship and cooperation in the gospel. The purpose of this influential movement is threefold: to fight the “culture war”; to evangelize the lost; and to realize the oneness of the church. Demonstrating from Scripture that justification is central to the gospel of the glory and grace of God, the editorial charged that ECT compromises, and thus loses, the biblical doctrine of justification as confessed by the Reformation.

A more serious charge could not be imagined.

This raises the question, “What is the biblical teaching on justification as faithfully confessed by the Reformation and by the true church today?”

Righteous before God

Justification is the act of God in Jesus Christ by which a sinner becomes righteous before God the righteous judge. This act is necessary for salvation inasmuch as the sinner is guilty before God and inasmuch as God, before whom the sinner stands, is righteous.

The sinner is guilty. He stands before the divine judge as a transgressor of the law, as one whose very nature is contrary to the law, and, therefore, as one who deserves condemnation and the punishment of eternal death. Yes, and if the sinner is not justified by God the judge, he will be condemned, sentenced, and executed. “All the world,” says the apostle in Romans 3:19, is “guilty before God.”

God the judge is righteous. As righteous, He will by no means clear the guilty, but will—and must—punish the guilty sinner with the extreme penalty of eternal hell in body and soul, if the sinner is not justified by Him.

The sinner’s need is his guilt, and justification, accordingly, is God’s change of the sinner’s legal position, or standing. Justification is not a work of God that makes the sinner a good person, but it is a verdict from the bench that declares the sinner to be innocent. There is a work of God that makes the sinner a good person, who begins to love God and his neighbor. This work always accompanies justification. But it is not justification. It is not any part of the act of justification.

That this is justification—simply and strictly an act that changes the sinner’s legal standing—is proved from three, plain teachings of the Bible. First, justification is God’s salvation of a man or woman precisely with regard to the sinner’s guilt. The justification which the apostle sets forth in Romans 3:20ff. corresponds to the guilt which he has charged against the whole world in verse 19. As guilt is one’s legal standing before the judge and justice, so justification is exactly the change of that legal standing.

Second, the opposite of justification in Scripture is condemnation: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” (Rom. 8:33, 34) As condemnation is not that someone makes me bad, but pronounces me guilty, so God’s justification is not that He makes me good, but that He pronounces me innocent. The apostle does not say, “It is God that justifieth. Who is he that corrupts me?”

The third conclusive proof that justification is the change of the sinner’s legal standing is Scripture’s teaching that God justifies by imputing righteousness to the sinner. In the act of justification, God imputes, or reckons, the righteousness of another to the account of the guilty sinner. This imputation, or reckoning, of righteousness is the justification of the sinner.

This is the language of the Bible in Romans 4. Abraham’s faith was “counted unto him for righteousness” (v. 3). David in Psalm 32 spoke of the blessedness of the man unto whom God “imputes righteousness without works” (v. 6). Faith was “reckoned … for righteousness” (v. 9). “Counted,” “imputes,” and “reckoned” are all the same word in the Greek original of the chapter. This word expresses that God justifies by crediting the sinner, who is himself unrighteous, with the righteousness of another. There is a legal transfer of righteousness to the sinner’s account.

The whole truth of justification stands in this, that righteousness is not infused, or imparted, to an immoral man, so that he becomes good, but imputed to the account of a guilty man, so that he becomes innocent.

In the December 8, 1997 issue of Christianity Today, evangelicals involved in ECT published a defense of their original document, “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” This defense was titled, “ECT: The Gift of Salvation.” By this defense these evangelicals attempted to answer criticism of their original document. The criticism was that the original document failed to confess justification by faith alone. Although the defense wanted to leave the impression that evangelicals and Roman Catholics in ECT do agree that justification is by faith alone, it frankly acknowledged that there is no agreement on “the language of justification as it relates to imputed righteousness” (emphasis added). But if there is no agreement on imputation, there is no agreement on justification. For justification is the imputing of righteousness.

Justification as imputation consists of two distinct elements. God does not impute to the elect sinner his own unrighteousness. This is the forgiveness of sins. The judge renders the verdict, “Not guilty!” The creditor cancels the debt.

The other element is God’s crediting the account of the sinner, positively, with a perfect righteousness that fully satisfies the justice of God. The judge declares, “Innocent!”

Although there is nothing like this in earthly justice, there is a similar act of judgment on God’s part in declaring all humans guilty. Romans 5:12ff. teaches that God has imputed the disobedience of Adam to every human unto condemnation.

By Faith Alone

How does God impute righteousness, and how does the guilty sinner thus receive righteousness? How can the sinner—how can I—be righteous before God? The answer of the gospel and of the Reformation is, “by faith! by faith alone!”

Faith, which is the knowledge of God as a gracious Savior and the trust in His promise that He will justify everyone who repents and believes, is the means, or instrument, by which the sinner receives righteousness from God.

The sinner is justified by faith alone. This is the plain meaning of the Habakkuk passage (2:4) picked up by Paul in Romans 1:17: “the just shall live by his faith.” To add, “and by his own works,” is obviously to destroy the prophet’s great doctrine.

This is the apostle’s conclusion in Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law.” Inasmuch as “the deeds of the law” refer to man’s own activity of obeying and keeping the law of God and inasmuch as this is the only conceivable additional way of being justified, the apostle teaches that we are justified by faith alone. Luther was right, theologically, exegetically, and linguistically, to translate the text with the word “alone.”

Scripture excludes works and working from justification, that is, all the sinner’s own efforts to satisfy the justice of God, both by attempting to pay for his sins and by attempting to merit righteousness. The apostle makes this unmistakably plain in Romans 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

Justification is by faith; it is not because of faith. Faith is not a new work of the sinner that merits righteousness. Faith is not a condition that the sinner fulfills in order to obtain righteousness. The Bible never says that we are justified because of faith, or on account of faith. It rather says that we are justified by or out of faith. All the Reformation creeds are unanimous in repudiating the subtle notion that faith is a deed of man upon which justification depends.

In his recent examination of orthodox Reformed theology as presented in the creeds of the Reformation, Jan Rohls observes that the contrast between “righteousness of faith” and “righteousness of works” is meaningful “only if faith itself is not in turn understood as a work.” In the Reformation creeds, “faith is not another cause on account of which” the sinner is justified. “On the contrary, faith is solely the instrument for grasping Christ’s merit” (Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen, Westminster John Knox, pp. 127, 128).

The Heidelberg Catechism is representative of all the confessions, and especially pointed, in its repudiation of the notion that the justification-formula, “by faith alone,” means that faith is a meriting ground or an obtaining cause on the part of the sinner himself. “Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only? Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith …” (Question 61).

To teach this would be the same as teaching justification by works.

However, much of contemporary, so-called evangelicalism teaches this very thing. Faith is a condition that the sinner must fulfill in order to obtain for himself the righteousness that God in grace offers equally to all, a work of the sinner upon which depend forgiveness and eternal life. Thus, much of evangelicalism is in fundamental agreement with Rome in the central matter of justification. Both teach that man himself does something to earn, or obtain, righteousness. For Rome this something is working; for evangelicals, it is believing.

This goes far toward explaining ECT.

What destroys this subtle error, namely, making faith the basis or cause of righteousness, is Scripture’s teaching that the sinner is unable of himself to believe. God must give faith, which then is not the sinner’s contribution, but the instrument by which God justifies. “By grace ye are saved through faith, and that (faith) not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

As the act of God through faith, which by His gift is actually ours, justification is His verdict in our consciousness; His crediting our account in our soul; His forgiveness in our experience; His imputing us righteous so that we are assured of it here and now. Like the publican we go up to the house of God, stricken with our guilt, bringing nothing of self save our sins, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” And like the publican we go down to our house justified—righteous by divine verdict in the courtroom of our own consciousness (Luke 18:9ff.).

The Obedience of Christ Alone

That which completes the biblical gospel of justification by faith alone is the basis of God’s justifying act. This basis is the obedience of Jesus Christ, and the obedience of Jesus Christ alone. This explains how God can be just in declaring the ungodly sinner righteous and, on the ground of this righteousness, not only not damning him, but even blessing him with eternal life and magnificent glory.

The justified sinner needs to know this basis of his justification. Otherwise, he can never enjoy peace. There is a basis for justification! This basis is the obedience of Christ!

Christ’s lifelong obedience and especially His atoning death, in the stead of all those whom the Father gave Him as His church in the decree of election, is the righteousness of God worked out for guilty sinners.

Christ’s obedience, therefore, is reckoned to my account when I believe on Him. Just as my disobedience was imputed to His account on the cross (not infused into Him, but imputed to Him), so His obedience is imputed to my account through faith.

Justification, accordingly, magnifies Jesus Christ and His cross. “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).

Honoring God’s righteousness in Christ alone, faith knows and trusts in Jesus Christ alone for righteousness. Faith embraces Jesus Christ and His finished, perfect work alone. Faith pleads Christ alone at the seat of judgment.

Faith renounces all else for righteousness! Self! The good works which we do, in fact, perform by the Holy Spirit! The church! Our own denomination! The saints! Our believing parents! Mary! Even sound doctrine, including our confession of justification by faith alone!

“Faith,” said Luther, “clasps Christ as a ring clasps its jewel.”

This is God’s own Word of justification.

This is the biblical heart of the gospel of grace.

This was the truth into which the Spirit of Christ led the church of the Reformation.

And this is compromised by ECT.


(to be cont.)