Tuesday, July 16, 2002

By Imputation or Infusion?

The great mystery of salvation is justification. How are we made acceptable to a Holy and perfect God who demands an unattainable perfect compliance with His law? Clearly we can never, on our own, meet such a demand.

The problem is not that our sins are not forgiven. The problem is that the price of admission to heaven is an unblemished record. And once one has sinned, the record can never be expunged. Christ said “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13). The (mythical) righteous man has no need of justification.

Justification is like being acquitted of a crime, though not because the accused is innocent, but because an innocent third party (Christ) has made a satisfactory restitution to the offended (God). We get off on some clever legal maneuvering.

So exactly how does this happen? Here again is an area where there is a substantive difference between the Roman Catholic view and the Reformed view.

As always, when I talk about the Roman Catholic position I do so with great humility and welcome any corrections.

More than a quibble over the word “alone”

The difference between the Roman Catholic view of Justification is sometimes cast as the “mere” addition of the word alone:
  • RCC: Justification is by faith.

  • Reformers: Justification is by faith alone.

There has been much unpleasant discussion in blogdom over just how important this difference is, and who meant what back in the 16th century, and who was or was not cursed at Trent, and historical context, and many other details.

However, there is another big question here, above and beyond the nontrivial insistence on the word alone. To wit, how does justification happen? And here we find another substantive difference between the RCC and the Reformers. It is not “just” the “aloneness” of justification, but also that way it happens.

The question is whether we can actually become righteousness (and are therefore acceptable to God) or whether God treats us as if we were righteous. The former is the view of the RCC, the latter of the Reformers.

Neither side holds the position that any sort of justification can occur apart from Grace (that is the heresy of Pelagianism). Both the RCC and Reformed position is that grace is necessary for justification. There is a difference as to whether it is sufficient.

The Reformed View

Calvin wrote:
Thus we simply interpret justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour 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.
Calvin also writes that the justified is “deemed righteous” and “regarded not as a sinner.”

This makes it clear that the Reformed view is that man himself does not have inherent righteousness even after justification. The righteousness with which we present ourselves to a Holy God is by imputation; it is not inherent or infused into us. It is symmetric with the view that our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross and he was punished as if they were His own even though they were not.

The Roman Catholic View

Contrast Calvin’s view with what Rome declared at the Council of Trent:
… the instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which no man was ever justified finally, the single formal cause is the justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just, that, namely, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to everyone as He wills, and according to each one's disposition and cooperation.
We see here a very different view from Calvin’s. The RCC view is that we are justified not by an imputation but by an infusion. We acquire inherent righteousness, initially from the instrumental cause: baptism. Justification also requires cooperation. Furthermore, the state of being justified can be lost through the commission of sin and must be restored by another sacrament: penance. This is turns leads to the idea of congruous merit that is so alien to the reformed view and that Luther so despised.

The RCC disputes the Reformed view of Justification and holds that if we must be righteous before God then we must have a true, internal righteousness which, though accomplished through grace, is nevertheless “ours”.


The RCC and the Reformed views on justification are very different-- different enough to be the primary cause of the Reformation. It is very important to appreciate that these differences are not superficial (some have said that the only difference is the Reformers and the RCC interchange the meanings of Justification and Sanctification). There are additional ramifications when it comes to other doctrines such as predesitination, perseverance, the atonement, original sin, types of merit, purgatory, and virtually all other salvation related topics. Whether or not these differences are substantive enough in our eyes to warrant the greatest schism in the history of Christianity, they were without question considered very important to both the Reformers and Rome.

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