Justification: An Imperilled Doctrine
by Maurice Roberts
[Reproduced with the permission of the author.]
[Extracted from The Banner of Truth magazine, Issue 442 (July 2000), pp. 1-6.]
The most important issue facing all Christians of every church at this time is the vital one: How is a sinner justified before God? Various factors have, over the past few years, conspired to bring this, which is the greatest of all questions in religion, to the fore. In general, the Ecumenical Movement, with its insistence that all Christians should unite regardless of the claims of truth on the individual’s conscience, has done so. The Second Vatican Council with its concessions to Protestants that they are not so much ‘heretics’ as ‘separated brethren’ has been another factor. More recently the move towards reunion with Rome of a large section of Lutheranism; the efforts at finding a common formula between Anglican and Roman Catholics through the ARCIC pronouncements; and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement in the United States have all, in one way or another, brought to the forefront the need to seek fresh clarity on this central issue: How is a sinner justified before God?
Two essentially different answers to this question surfaced at the time of the Reformation, and they have divided the visible church in the West into Catholic and Protestant from that day to this. In its Council of Trent (1545–63), the Roman Catholic Church defined its doctrine of justification in this way. It affirmed, over against Protestantism, that justification consists of two things: 1) The infusion into the sinner of the quality of ‘charity’ (love), by which a sinner comes to seek God as his chief good; and 2) the forgiveness of sins. The first element here was regarded as the real essence of justification, while the second is a supplement to it. At the same time, the Lutheran/Calvinistic doctrine of justification was anathematized by this Council of Trent.
The Lutheran/Calvinistic, or Protestant, view stated that justification consists of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner, by which he receives the forgiveness of his sins and is reckoned by God as righteous in Christ. The Protestant view denied that in justification there is any infusion of ‘love’ into the sinner and affirmed that justification is an act of imputation, not of infusion. The debate has centred on this point from the Reformation to the present day and shows no sign of abating. The Catholic and Protestant views of this subject are incompatible with one another. No formula will ever be found to reconcile them. Such formulas as have been offered to come to a compromise have either sought to achieve peace by sacrificing vital truth or else by offering an ambiguous pattern of words which each side can interpret in their own way. The real issue is this: in justification does God impart righteousness to man or does he impute righteousness to him?
The Catholic doctrine of justification is that of the great Augustine of Hippo (354–430). The Catholic Church over the thousand or so years from Augustine to Luther modified and developed its views on the doctrine of justification, but at the Reformation its basic attitude was that of Augustine. What did this Church Father teach on the subject of justification? Augustine’s views on the justification of a sinner are expressed mainly in his writings against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. At the Fall, man rebelled against God and became corrupt in nature, so that man now seeks his supreme good in created things rather than in the Creator himself.
What then, according to Augustine, is religious conversion? It is the grace of God acting on man in such a way that his fallen nature is ‘replaced by grace’. This grace, he maintained, is bestowed on man at baptism. Those who fall from baptismal grace are restored through repentance. The Holy Spirit recreates man’s heart and frees his enslaved will, thus enabling him to ‘love’ God and choose him as his chief good. This healing and renewing work in man’s soul is variously termed by Augustine ‘renovation’, ‘vivification’, ‘regeneration’ and ‘justification’. It is easy to find in his writings expressions which equate the healing ‘righteousness’ of God in the gospel with the renewal of man’s nature.
Two excerpts from Augustine’s writings may be given as examples of his thought on this subject:
1) Commenting on Romans 1:17, where Paul speaks of ‘the righteousness of God’, he says: ‘He [Paul] does not say, the righteousness of man or the righteousness of his will, but the “righteousness of God” – meaning not that whereby he himself is righteous, but that with which he endows man when he justifies the ungodly . . .’
2) ‘“Being justified by his grace”. It is not, therefore, by the law nor by their own will that they are justified; but they are justified freely by God’s grace – not that the justification takes place without our will; but our will is shown to be weak by the law; that grace may heal its infirmity, and thus healed, it may fulfil the law’ (On the Spirit and Letter, IX).
We leave aside here Augustine’s obvious error of linking grace too closely to baptism. This mistake we may well believe with Warfield is one of those things which Augustine would have corrected had he lived long enough to work out fully his own evangelical doctrine of grace. It is clear that Augustine interpreted the New Testament doctrine of justification to include regeneration, or the sanctification of man’s fallen nature. He is evangelical to the extent of denying to man’s fallen will the power, apart from grace, to fulfil the law of God. He is not evangelical, however, in his understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’, which he construes as the righteousness of the renewed man himself and not the righteousness of Christ imputed to him.
Augustine’s failure to expound accurately the doctrine of justification in the New Testament arose in part from his lack of proficiency in the Greek language. He failed to appreciate that dicaioo in Greek means to ‘declare righteous’ or ‘acquit’. Since he read his New Testament mainly in Latin, he found there the term iustificare (‘to make righteous’), and fell into the easy trap of defining justification in terms which are appropriate rather to the new birth and to sanctification.
This doctrine of justification as taught by Augustine became substantially the standard Catholic view. It was set out dogmatically by the Council of Trent at the time of the Reformation and has remained authoritative to this day. This is the doctrine still to be found in standard Catholic works such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Latin text of which received its imprimatur from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as recently as 1994. In this authoritative Catechism justification, as in Augustine, has the two elements of renewal and forgiveness: ‘Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high’ (Catholic Catechism, para. 1989). The Council of Trent’s earlier words are here affirmed by the Catechism: ‘Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ (Ibid.). Again, ‘By giving birth to the “inner man”, justification entails the sanctification of his whole being’ (para. 1995). The element of baptismal grace is as present in the modern Catechism as ever: ‘Our justification comes from the grace of God ... Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body’ (paras. 1996, 1997). The old concept of ‘merit’ is also present: ‘Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification ... and for the attainment of eternal life’ (para. 2010).
It was this view of justification which Martin Luther learned from the Catholic Church of his day and which prior to his famous ‘Tower experience’, probably at the end of 1518, he believed and taught in his lectures. The mature Luther, however, following his experience in the ‘Tower’, held and taught a doctrine of justification which departs radically from Augustine and from Rome. The following quotations from his writings will illustrate how significantly Luther’s views differed from those of his early upbringing:
1. ‘Your righteousness is Christ, who was made a curse for you and who redeemed you from the curse of the law’ (On Gal. 4:27).
2. ‘The fruit and benefit of his [Christ’s] sacrifice and ministry are the forgiveness of sins and justification’ (Church Postil, 5th Sunday in Lent).
3. ‘Our righteousness is nothing but imputation.’ ‘It consists not in any merits, but in the favour and imputation of God through faith’ (Bondage of the Will).
4. ‘Man is justified when he appropriates and receives by faith this forgiveness of imputed righteousness. Faith does not justify because it is a new quality in man, but because it lays hold of the promise of grace and relies on the mercy of God alone.’ ‘We are justified by faith alone, because faith alone appropriates the victory of Christ’ (On Gal. 3:13).
5. ‘Justification does not take place through works, but by faith alone, without any works ... completely and at once. Truly it is plain, then, that faith alone brings such good things of God, that is, justification and salvation, and makes us instantaneously, not gradually, children and heirs, who then freely do good works of all kinds’ (On Gal. 4:5).
The respects in which Luther’s doctrine of justification differs from Augustine’s are in that 1) the ‘righteousness’ of a justified man, according to Luther, is wholly and entirely Christ’s righteousness; 2) it is a ‘righteousness’ in which the good deeds of a renewed sinner play no part; 3) it is a ‘righteousness’ received by faith alone; 4) it is a ‘righteousness’ which confers immediate acceptance with God; 5) it is a ‘righteousness’ which brings him assurance and joy in spite of his remaining imperfections of heart and life. It is not to be thought that Luther had no place in his thinking for a divine renewal of the heart. Luther believed in spiritual renewal just as Augustine had done. But this work of renewal, he argued, must be most clearly distinguished from justification properly so called. He sometimes refers to ‘first justification’ and ‘second justification’, the first being the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner and the second the renewal of his nature in what is now normally termed sanctification.
The relationship between these two is taken up by Luther in his academic disputations held at Wittenburg from 1536 to 1543. For example, he states the difference in this way: ‘For he first cleanses by imputation, then (deinde) he gives the Holy Spirit, by whom we are cleansed in regard to our substance. Faith purifies through the remission of sins; the Holy Spirit purifies by his effect’ (Disputations of Justification, 1536).
The light which, by God’s grace, Luther threw on the doctrine of justification is reflected in all the Reformation confessions, both Continental and British. Luther’s doctrine was recognised by all the Reformers and their successors to be that of Paul and of the Holy Scriptures. They agreed with the great German Reformer that this one point of doctrine is all-important to the well-being, and indeed to the very being, of any professing church of Christ.
The Protestant doctrine from Luther’s day onward is that expressed in the words, for instance, of the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1648:
‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which He pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in His sight, not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.’
It became necessary from the time of the Reformation onwards in any Protestant definition of justification, not only to affirm the positive elements but also to deny those Augustinian and Catholic elements which from Luther’s time onward were deemed to have no place in our justification as sinners.
How did Luther come to recognise the true meaning of ‘righteousness’ and of a sinner’s justification before God? If we take the Luther scholar, Dr Uuras Saarnivaara, as our guide, we should appreciate that Luther’s teaching on justification ‘was closely connected with the deepening of his conception of sin’ (Luther Discovers the Gospel, p. 113). The more he became acquainted, especially in the years following 1512, with the Bible and with the depravity of his own heart, the more clearly he saw the utter impossibility of securing a standing before God based on any works of his own. Even as a Christian his best works, so far from earning ‘merit’ before God, were ‘filthy rags’. In the years 1518 to 1521, Luther advocated this aspect of man’s justification repeatedly. (Luther had a truly biblical view of justification only in and after the year 1518. ‘Young’ Luther was not yet a Reformer.)
Luther’s ‘Tower experience’ (dated by Saarnivaara at the end of 1518) did not occur in a vacuum. From 1513 and onwards he had been giving academic lectures to students at Wittenburg and had an ‘unusually ardent desire’, he informs us, ‘to understand Paul in his Epistle to the Romans’. Yet he there found a problem: ‘In spite of the ardour of my heart I was hindered by the unique word in the first chapter, “the righteousness of God is revealed in it”. I hated that word “righteousness of God”, because ... I had been taught to understand it philosophically as meaning ... the formal or active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners ...’
‘Day and night I tried to meditate upon the significance of these words: “The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith”. Then finally’, says Luther, ‘God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith, and that this sentence “The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel” is passive ... Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment the face of the whole of Scripture became apparent to me.’
In this one experience the Reformation was born. More than a thousand years of misunderstanding was rolled back. The imperfect definition of justification offered by Augustine was subjected to biblical correction. Paul’s authentic doctrine now dawned on the soul of the German monk. Before long the world was to be turned upside down by it.
We began by asserting that the most important issue facing Christians everywhere today is that of how the sinner is justified before God. Almost half a millennium has run its course since Luther’s evangelical discovery in the ‘Tower’ at Wittenburg. But the value of his discovery is as great for the church of Christ as the day he made it. A clear understanding of God’s method of justification was lost to the church for over a thousand years.
A great many voices Catholic and ‘Protestant’, are today being raised against the Lutheran and Pauline doctrine in the professing church of Christ. The future must ever remain hidden from our eyes but, should the biblical doctrine of justification – may God forbid! – be lost to the world again, its loss could only spell bondage and misery to millions of souls. Certain it is in every age that where there is no justification there is no joy, no hope and no gospel.
Who then will champion this truth in our times?
William Cunningham on Luther
His great leading service ... was the entire destruction of the doctrine of human merit, and the thorough establishment of the great scriptural truth of a purely gratuitous justification, through faith alone ... This was the work which God raised him up and qualified him to achieve; and a more important work, one more fraught with glory to God and benefit to man, was probably never committed to any one who had not been endowed with the gift of supernatural inspiration.
– The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation,
recently reprinted by the Trust (ISBN 0 85151 013 2, 628 pp., clothbound), p.101.
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