(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
The Evangelical Way of Justification: Faith → Justification + WorksWe will not spend a great deal of time in this final section on Justification, because we more or less covered the evangelical (Protestant) view when we earlier contrasted it with the Roman Catholic view.
Recall our definition:
Justification: The means by which an unjust sinner is made acceptable to a Holy God.
It is somewhat surprising how little modern Protestants and Catholics know about the topic of Justification.
In the forward to R. C. Sproul’s book Faith Alone. Michael Horton writes:
It is also revealing (a) how little most Protestants know about their own convictions and (b) with what great ease they find the concerns raised by the Reformation to be irrelevant. How can this be? Has Rome’s position changed? In fact it has not. The Vatican II documents as well as the new Catechism of the Catholic Church reinvoke the theological position of the Council of Trent, condemning the gospel of justification by an imputed righteousness.The difference between the Roman Catholic view and the Evangelical view on justification is shown in stark relief when one considers the following statement:
Today one can easily find theological professors at leading evangelical institutions who no longer find justification by faith alone to be true, much less necessary.
R. C. Sproul has rendered the church an enormous service at a critical moment. The Reformation was not primarily concerned with the issues evangelicals today often think of first: the papacy, superstition, and the cult of the Virgin and the saints. First and foremost, it was a challenge to Rome’s confusion over the very meaning of the gospel.
By grace, God reckons Christ's righteousness to us.
To the evangelical, this statement is the gospel. We are acceptable to God because Christ's righteousness is credited or imputed to us, not because we actually become righteous. To the Roman Catholic Church, as is made clear in the Council of Trent, the same statement is viewed as a legal fiction, one that impugns God's character. To Rome, God is not deceitful; He doesn’t go about declaring the unjust as just. To Rome, God declares the just to be just.
There is a modern trend to discount the importance of the differing views on justification. To say, in effect, that the Reformation was much ado about nothing. But once you see that what one side views as the gospel, the other side views as worthy of excommunication (see the articles on justification in the Council of Trent) you should be dissuaded of the notion that the differences are trivial.
Catholicism does not teach salvation by works. Rome agrees with the Reformed that the righteousness of Christ is required for justification. The difference is that in Rome's view, our Lord's righteousness is sacramentally infused into the sinner—which is to say that by grace (not by works—no need to slander the RCC) the sinner actually becomes just (or righteous). In this way the "legal fiction" is avoided. In Rome's view, the just are justified. In the Reformed view, regenerated man is declared justified while still a sinner.
It should be clear from the Atonement that imputation does not constitute a legal fiction. On the cross, our sin was imputed to Christ. Our sin was not infused into Christ—that would make Christ actually sinful, and His death would have accomplished nothing. Likewise, His righteousness is imputed to us. It is not a legal fiction, because in both cases the one who gets the short end of the stick (Christ) (a) possessed a perfect righteousness and (b) voluntarily agreed to the imputation.
In the table below, I list some of the similarities and differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic views on justification.
The analytic vs. synthetic distinction is interesting. An analytic statement is a tautology. Example: A rectangle has four sides. There is no information added in the predicate (has four sides) that wasn’t present in the subject (rectangle.) A synthetic statement, by contrast, adds information. An example: The car is red.
In the Roman Catholic view, the just are justified. It is analytic. In the Reformed view, the unjust are justified by imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It is synthetic.
For the Reformed, a saved person will undergo a process of sanctification, but will never arrive at a point where he could be justified by his inherent righteousness, even though that inherent righteousness is not really of himself but is the result of the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. For the Reformed, the basis of justification always rests on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
One criticism of the Protestant view of justification is that it is a change in status only. That is, God declares you to be justified, but you are still the same person after the declaration. Technically this is true, but it is not the complete story.
In Reformed theology, there are three steps that occur in logical if not actually temporal order: regeneration, faith, and justification. Both coming-to-faith and justification are reserved for those whom God regenerates. With that in mind, it is clear that a justified man is radically different from his former, unregenerated self. Furthermore, the process of sanctification inevitably begins. There is no room in Reformed theology where one can sneak in the perversion of antinomianism.
There are many passages on justification in scripture, some of which we have already studied. Let us review two of the more important.
9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; (Rom 4:9-10)Here is one of the proof texts of justification by faith alone. For before he was circumcised, before any good works, righteousness was credited (imputed) to Abraham for one reason and one reason only: faith. Sola fide.
Looking at the question of baptizing adults we see a similar distinction. The Roman Catholic view is that the adult who sees, understands, and affirms the teachings of Rome is qualified for a baptism that will then regenerate him. The Protestant view is this intellectual acknowledgement is not sufficient—the adult must first be regenerated and then be baptized. Indeed the difference is extreme: the Protestant view is that an unregenerate person brings further damnation upon himself by undergoing baptism. The Protestant view parallels Abraham’s circumcision: Abraham was justified before circumcision; the adult is justified before baptism.
Another important passage comes from James:
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)This passage is important to answer the common slander of Reformed theology, already discussed, that the Reformed view is inherently antinomian, given that imputed righteousness in and of itself demands no change in a person's life. James makes it clear that God only justifies regenerated men, and such men will produce fruit. A person who never bears fruit is not regenerate and hence not saved, even if he, like the demons, intellectually believes.
The Reformed mantra of "Justification by Faith Alone" is really shorthand for “Justification by a Saving Faith which unites us with Christ who alone saves, and which always leads to good works.” It is more accurately Sola Christo, Christ Alone.
We also take note that saving faith is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8). While we must not discount a credible confession of faith, we have to make a distinction between confessing your faith in words (undoubtedly a good thing) and possessing faith. This is especially important when we consider the case of those who die in infancy. Scripture teaches Sola Fide without exception. There is no age of accountability described in scripture. (There is a reference of a Jewish age of accountability it terms of criminal acts, same as we recognize—but there is no indication that infants are saved by some means other than Sola Fide.) So what of infants who die in the womb, or at a very young age?
Once one understands that professing faith is very different from possessing faith, there is no problem. The gift of faith is God’s to give, and to give to whom it pleases him. There is nothing whatsoever (other than our own chauvinism) that precludes God from bestowing the gift of faith on infants, mentally handicapped, etc. John’s reaction (in the womb) to the presence of Jesus (in the womb) is a sign that faith may be given at any time (Luke 1:41).
We can have hope for those infants murdered in the womb, or who died at a young age, but not because children are innocent or that they have a special pathway to heaven that gets closed tight when they reach a certain age, but because God who is merciful will lose no sheep.
Next Topic: Roman Catholicism