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Rev. Shand is a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.

A man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgment of God he is deemed righteous, and is accepted on account of his righteousness; for as iniquity is abominable to God, so neither can the sinner find grace in his sight, so far as he is and so long as he is regarded as a sinner. Hence, wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God. He, on the other hand, is justified who is regarded not as a sinner, but as righteous, and as such stands acquitted at the judgment-seat of God, where all sinners are condemned…. A man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous. Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (Institutes, III.11.2).

Justification by faith alone was the fundamental distinguishing doctrine of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. It was regarded by all of the Reformers to be of central and paramount importance. Luther declared this doctrine to be the article of the standing or falling church and contended that “nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin” (Articles of Smalcald, Art. 1).

Calvin described it as “the main hinge on which religion turns.” He also described it as “the principle of the whole doctrine of salvation and of the foundation of all religion.” At the outset of his treatment of justification in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin again emphasized the fundamental importance of this doctrine.

The doctrine of Justification is now to be fully discussed, and discussed under the conviction, that as it is the principal ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and attention. For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment which he passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety towards God can be reared” (Institutes, III.11.1).

There was no significant difference among the Reformers as to their essential understanding of this doctrine. The unity of thought and expression is reflected in the various formulations of justification in the Reformed creeds. (Cf. Augsburg Confession, 1530, Art. IV; French Confession, 1559, Art. XVIII; Belgic Confession, 1561, Art. XXII & XXIII; Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, Q & A, 60, 61; Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, chapter XV; Westminster Confession of Faith, 1643, chapter XI.)

The Reformers developed their understanding of this doctrine in opposition to the doctrine of justification espoused by the Church of Rome. The essence of the charge that the Reformers directed at the Church of Rome was that while she proclaimed accurately who Christ was and what He had accomplished with respect to the salvation of sinners, nonetheless, she perverted the gospel of the grace of God, maintaining erroneous and unscriptural views of the grounds on which, and the process through which, the blessings that Christ had procured on the cross were conveyed to sinners. At issue was whether justification was wholly attributable to the grace of God and to the work of Jesus Christ or whether it was proper to ascribe to men and to their powers an active and contributory part in their salvation.

Rome’s position with respect to justification had been crafted throughout the Middle Ages, with care being taken to maintain consistency with her underlying semi-Pelagian thinking that provided for the effective freedom of man’s will as regards salvation. Though Rome’s views on justification were many years prior to the Reformation, they were not given official sanction until the Council of Trent (1543-1563). The pronouncements of Trent on justification were characterized by vagueness, perhaps designedly so.

Trent’s treatment of justification centered in the meaning of the term. Trent defined justification as being “a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior” (Council of Trent, Chapter IV). As the definition suggests, Rome viewed justification as incorporating the whole process of change that takes place in a man as regards his salvation, including his deliverance from guilt and depravity. That position is made even plainer in chapter VII, where Trent defined justification to be “not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts.” The result was a confounding of justification and sanctification, with justification comprehending not only the remission of sin and deliverance from the guilt of sin, but also the sanctification or renovation of a man’s moral nature.

According to Rome, the ground of justification lay, at least in part, in the inherent righteousness of the sinner and in his good works, the requisite grace being infused into the sinner. Therefore, inherent personal righteousness was the cause of justification, and baptism was the instrument by which it was communicated to the sinner. “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Chapter XVI, Canon XXIV). For Rome, justification was a cooperative effort involving both God and man.

Accordingly, Rome denied that sinners were justified by faith alone, faith being defined as “the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and the root of all justification.” By this Rome meant that faith justified in the sense that it was the chief means for producing that personal righteousness which was the true cause or ground of justification.

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will: let him be anathema (Council of Trent, Chapter XVI, Canon IX).

Rome’s confounding of justification and sanctification also naturally led to the conclusion that justification was not an instantaneous act, but that it involved a gradual process that may not be completed even in this life.

Now that is a soul-destroying doctrine! There was and is no comfort in Rome’s view of justification; no assurance of salvation; no confirmation that a sinner is right with God. It is no wonder that Luther despaired when, in keeping with Rome’s dogma, he mistakenly concluded that “the righteousness of God,” in Romans 1:17, referred to God’s righteous anger against sin. Even Luther’s out-monking of the monks could provide no solace to him. His works, no matter how great or zealously performed, could never satisfy the requirements of the law of God, and he knew it. Luther was able to find solace only when he came to understand that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 did not refer to the attribute of God’s righteousness, but rather to the righteousness that God graciously and freely gives to the sinner on account of Jesus Christ. Expressing his sense of relief, Luther wrote, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.”

Like Luther, Calvin recognized the comfortless nature of Rome’s doctrine of justification. Speaking of Rome’s confusion of justification with sanctification and its consequential destruction of a believer’s comfort, Calvin wrote:

But as it is too well known by experience, that the remains of sin always exist in the righteous, it is necessary that justification should be something very different from reformation to newness of life. This latter God begins in his elect, and carries on during the whole course of life, gradually and sometimes slowly, so that if placed at his judgment-seat they would always deserve sentence of death. He justifies not partially, but freely, so that they can appear in the heavens as if clothed with the purity of Christ. No portion of righteousness could pacify the conscience. It must be decided that we are pleasing to God, as being without exception righteous in his sight. Hence it follows that the doctrine of justification is perverted and completely overthrown whenever doubt is instilled into the mind, confidence in salvation is shaken, and free and intrepid prayer is retarded; yea, whenever rest and tranquillity with spiritual joy are not established (Institutes, III.11.11).

The vagueness that characterized Trent’s position on justification and the comfortless nature of its pronouncements stood in sharp contrast to the clarity, simplicity, and warmth of the writings of Calvin and the other Reformers on this subject. Calvin’s view of justification can be summarized in the following propositions:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, and as a forensic or legal act it does not change the inner nature of a man, but only the judicial relationship in which he stands before God—God accepting him as righteous in His sight.

The ground for justification is not found in the inherent righteousness of the believer, but only in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which a sinner appropriates by faith—faith being that God-given power whereby the believer is united to Jesus Christ and becomes partaker of all His benefits, including having His righteousness put to his account.

Justification is not a progressive work of God, rather it is a single, instantaneous act of God whereby the sinner is declared to be without guilt, so that the believer can be absolutely certain that his state before God is no longer one of wrath and condemnation, but one of favor and acceptance.

Calvin identified justification as a legal or forensic concept, distinct from sanctification. As such, Calvin viewed justification as the changing of a man’s legal state before God, but not his condition. Justification resulted in the declaration by God that a sinner was without guilt, in light of his having been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Let us now consider the truth of what was said in the definition, viz., that justification by faith is reconciliation with God, and that this consists solely in the remission of sins. We must always return to the axiom that the wrath of God lies upon all men so long as they continue sinners. This is elegantly expressed by Isaiah in these words: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.”

Isaiah 59:1, 2

We are here told that sin is a separation between God and man; that His countenance is turned away from the sinner; and that it cannot be otherwise, since, to have any intercourse with sin is repugnant to his righteousness…. When the Lord, therefore, admits him to union, he is said to justify him, because he can neither receive him into favor, nor unite him to himself, without changing his condition from that of a sinner into that of a righteous man. We add that this is done by remission of sins. For if those whom the Lord has reconciled to himself are estimated by works, they will still prove to be in reality sinners, while they ought to be pure and free from sin. It is evident therefore, that the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their pollutions wiped away by the remission of sins, so that this justification may be termed in one word the remission of sins (Institutes, III.11.21).

Calvin maintained a clear and sharp distinction between justification and sanctification. However, he acknowledged that a radical change of character invariably accompanied justification.

We dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor of a justification which can exist without them: the only difference is, that while we acknowledge that faith and works are necessarily connected, we, however, place justification in faith, not in works. How this is done is easily explained, if we turn to Christ only, to whom our faith is directed and from whom it derives all its power. Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we apprehend the righteousness of Christ, which alone reconciles us to God. This faith, however, you cannot apprehend without at the same time apprehending sanctification;… Christ, therefore, justifies no man without also sanctifying him. These blessings are conjoined by a perpetual and inseparable tie (Institutes, III.16.1).

Calvin asserted that justification was by faith alone. By faith alone, Calvin did not mean that faith itself justified, but rather that faith was the instrument by which the believer was united to Christ and by which he appropriated Jesus Christ and His righteousness.

The Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone is essential to salvation. Therefore, it is disturbing to note that presently in North America and in Great Britain there is renewed debate as to the teaching of Scripture on this subject among those who profess to hold to the Reformed faith. What warrants very close scrutiny are the attempts being made to develop a view of justification that is no longer by faith alone, but by faith and works. Now that sounds ominously familiar. Reformed churches ought to bear in mind the note of warning issued by Francis Turretin with respect to the adulteration of justification by faith alone, a doctrine that he styled as of the principal rampart of the Christian religion. “This being adulterated or subverted, it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places.”