Doctrine of Salvation (Part 9)

March 09, 2014     Time: 00:33:18


We have been studying the Doctrine of Salvation, and now we come to a new subsection within that doctrine on the doctrine of justification.


Justification may be defined as that judicial act of God’s free mercy whereby he pronounces guiltless sinners condemned under the law, constitutes them as righteous once for all in the righteousness of Christ on the ground of his atoning work by grace through faith alone apart from works, and assures them of: a full pardon, acceptance in his sight, adoption as sons, heirs of eternal life, the present gift of the Holy Spirit, and enables them to perform good works.

That is a pithy definition.

Discussion of Terms

Let’s talk about some of the terms that are involved in this definition.

The key term, of course, is the term “justification,” or “to justify,” which in the Greek is dikaioó. This means to put into a right relationship with God. Justification is that act of God whereby he puts us into a right relationship with him.

The traditional Protestant Reformation understanding of justification is that justification is a forensic term. That is to say, it is a judicial act of God. We are not made righteous in the sense that we suddenly become righteous people, but rather we are declared righteous, much as in a court of law the jury might declare a person not guilty.

Similarly, in justification God declares us righteous – to be justified by him – even if our immediate experience or moral character is not yet transformed by that new standing.

This forensic, or judicial, understanding of justification is based upon passages like Romans 4:2-8, 23-25. There Paul writes,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.”

And then turning over to Romans 4:23-25: [1]

But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

In Galatians 3, Paul gives a pithy summary of this same truth. Galatians 3:6, “Thus Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’” Notice the forensic language that is employed in this passage. It is not that Abraham was suddenly transformed into a righteous and moral man. Rather, it was because he had faith in God, because he believed God’s promises, his faith was reckoned to him, or another way of putting it is he was counted as righteousness to Abraham. So this is a declaration that Abraham is righteous on the basis of the exercise of his faith. His faith was reckoned, or accounted, by God as righteousness wholly apart from any works that he did. Similarly, Paul says “for us who believe” (that is to say, believe in Jesus Christ as Lord) “our faith will be reckoned as righteousness.” We similarly will be counted as righteous in view of our faith in Christ. Not because of any good works that we’ve done, but simply because we have placed our trust in him.

This forensic, or judicial, understanding of justification of the Protestant Reformers stands in contrast to the Catholic view of justification as well as to a very recent view called the New Perspective on Paul. Let’s talk first about the contrast with the traditional Catholic view of justification.

In the understanding of Catholic theology, justification is not simply a judicial declaration that one is forgiven and counted righteous. Rather, it is the actual imparting of moral righteousness to the believer. During the Council of Trent, which was held between 1546 to 1563, the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the doctrine that righteousness is something that is found in the believer – that God makes the believer righteous. This is in opposition to Luther who claimed that righteousness is something that is declared by God and is imputed to the believer.

In contrast to the Roman Catholic view, Luther’s view is that justification is a legal transaction that affects our status before God, but it is not a moral transformation. It is not a transformed character. Justification doesn’t make me into a morally good person. It simply declares that I am righteous before God. God puts us into a new relationship with himself. So, at Trent it is declared that the righteousness is intrinsic to me. It is not extrinsic; it is intrinsic to me. God makes me righteous. It is my righteousness that I possess. By contrast, on the Reformers’ view, righteousness is extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to you. It is not your own righteousness that God produces. It is extrinsic in contrast to Trent which treats it as intrinsic.

Similarly, at Trent the believer is actually made righteous, not simply declared to be righteous whereas, for the Reformers, the believer is declared to be righteous by God on the basis of his faith.[2] This becomes, I think, very clear; the difference is that on the Roman Catholic view righteousness is imparted to the believer, whereas on the Reformation view righteousness is imputed to the believer. On the Roman Catholic view righteousness is actually imparted to the believer – he becomes righteous – whereas on the Reformers’ view it is the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to the believer, legally to his account so to speak.

On the Roman Catholic view justification is thus both an event and a process. It begins with the first impartation of righteousness and then God imparts more and more righteousness. You become more and more justified before him as you increase in righteousness by receiving God’s grace through the sacraments provided by the church. By contrast, on the Reformers’ view justification is not a process. It is something that is declared by God and is complete and done with when a person turns to Christ in faith. He is declared righteous and his sins are forgiven. It is not a process that transpires over time.

So if we look at some of the statements from the Council of Trent, I think we can get a clear understanding of the Roman Catholic view. At the Council of Trent, they provide this brief description of the justification of the sinner and its mode in the state of grace. This is what the Council says,

In which words is given a brief description of the justification of the sinner, as being a translation from that state in which 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.

So justification is this translation out of this state of corruption and condemnation that we are in as a result of the Fall and it is into this state of grace.

In chapter 7, the Council goes on to explain in what the justification of the sinner consists. It says,

This disposition or preparation [and that is the preparation of the human will which is disposed to place its faith in Christ. Once the human will is prepared by God’s prevenient grace to respond, it says this,] is followed by justification itself, which is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.

So you can see that justification involves the sanctification of the inner man through God’s grace. It goes on to say,

. . . the single formal cause is the justice of God [or the righteousness 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 [or righteousness] 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.

So the righteousness of God is actually imparted to the believer. It is this renewal and making of righteousness within the believer.

Finally, in chapter 10, it speaks of the increase of this justification which we’ve received. The Council says,

Having, therefore, been thus justified and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day, that is, mortifying the members of their flesh, and presenting them as instruments of justice [or righteousness] unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified . . .

So you actually get more justification as time goes on and as you grow in the grace of God.[3] Your justification increases. In canon 24, the Council says,

If anyone says that the justice [or righteousness] received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.

So the Council here condemns those, like the Protestant Reformers, who say that one’s justification before God is not increased by the good works that you do, that these good works are the fruit or the signs of justification. But the Catholic view is, no, these good works that you do as a Christian are the cause of the increase of your justification.

I think you can see that justification in the Roman Catholic view is very different than the Reformers’ view. It is not a judicial or forensic act or declaration on God’s part; it is a kind of moral transformation that begins in the believer when he places his faith in Christ and which is then increased and augmented as that believer participates in the sacraments of the church and leads an obedient life to Christ.

Judicial Declaration

By contrast, I think that the Reformers understood that in Romans, for example, Paul is talking about a judicial act where we are reckoned to be righteous. Not somehow made to be morally transformed righteous people, but rather God declares us to be righteous. We are reckoned as righteous because we have placed our faith in Christ.

One way to think about this is to realize that the opposite of justification is condemnation. The opposite of justification is not moral turpitude. The opposite of justification is condemnation. When a criminal is condemned by the court, he experiences the opposite of acquittal or pardon by the court. The language of the New Testament reflects this opposition between justification and condemnation. For example, Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Romans 8:33-34, Paul says, “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” Do you see the polar opposites there? God is the one who justifies. Who is it that condemns? Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace with God doesn’t mean a kind of inner feeling of tranquility or serenity. Rather, it means that the enmity with God has been removed. We have been reconciled to God. Our sins are no longer counted against us. God’s wrath and justice have been propitiated. God is no longer the one who condemns us, but now he is the one who justifies us.

So if you think of justification as the opposite of condemnation, I think you’ll have a pretty firm handle on the Reformers’ idea of justification as a judicial act of God whereby you are acquitted, pardoned, and declared to be righteous through Christ’s righteousness.

It might be thought that this judicial view of justification amounts to little more than a legal fiction – that you are not really righteous; this is just a kind of legal fiction. I think a nice illustration of this would be the practice of some companies who have a policy that says that if a package is not returned within, say, three days then it is regarded as having been delivered.[4] Even if it never shows up at your door step and you never get it, nevertheless if it’s not returned in three days then the company considers it delivered. That would be an example of a legal fiction where they are just saying that it’s delivered even though it never really is. Justification is not a legal fiction like that. Rather, we really are acquitted by God; we really are pardoned. The proper analogy for this kind of declaration would be marriage. When a man and a woman are pronounced man and wife, there is an actual change of status that takes place. They are no longer single now; they are in this new state of marriage. That is not a legal fiction. There is no sort of pretense that is going on here. They really are now married. It is official before the law. The couple may feel exactly the same as they did before they got married but their status has changed now in view of this declaration. Similarly, when we are justified by God, it is not as though God pretends that we are righteous or he pretends that we are acquitted. Rather, he really does forgive us and pardon us and declare us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. So the notion is that we move from a state of condemnation before God to a state of proper relationship and justification before him in which we are now no longer guilty but are pardoned of his sin and justified before him and have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.


Question: I was wondering if James has univocal use of the word justification that Paul does.

Answer: Yeah, you are thinking of the passage where James talks about faith and works?

Followup: That “we are not justified by faith alone.” I think he says that pretty explicitly.

Answer: Right. OK, James 2:18 and following:

But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Now, on a prima facie level – at face value – this looks to be in contradiction to what Paul teaches in Romans where he says that Abraham was not justified by works, but he was justified by faith alone. Indeed, Luther felt very uncomfortable with the book of James. He called it “a right strawy epistle” and even thought maybe it shouldn’t be in the canon. But I think when you read James closely that it is evident that what he’s talking about is that a faith which is apart from works (in verse 20) is a barren faith. It is not a genuine faith. A faith apart from works is barren. And Paul certainly would have agreed with that. We will see that even more clearly when we talk about the New Perspective on Paul which emphasizes the role of works in Paul’s doctrine of justification. Then, notice what James says about the relation between faith and works in verse 22. “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works.” The works are the completion of the saving faith.[5] Notice that the example he uses is not Abraham’s believing the promise – that is the one that Paul uses where Abraham believed God’s promise. He’s using here Abraham’s offering of Isaac upon the altar – a later event. So he sees Abraham’s willingness to offer the son of the promise, Isaac, on the altar as completing that faith that Abraham had that Paul was talking about when God says “and you shall all the nations in the world be blessed, and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Here James sees that Scripture being fulfilled because that faith issued forth in works that showed it was real. He was willing to give up his son Isaac. So while, agreed, there is a sort of superficial, I think, conflict here, I feel confident that if Paul and James were to sit down together that Paul would be quite in agreement with James that genuine saving faith cannot be devoid of works but does issue in the fruit of good works which is the completion of that faith. And James would not think that the works that Abraham did were in some way meritorious and earned his salvation. So I think that while there is maybe superficial conflict here, really I don’t think that the conflict is deep.

Question: I obviously don’t understand the Catholic position. The idea that you are perfect after you are saved is false on its face with regard to personal experience and the experience of your relatives. Second, why would you have a confessional? Bless me Father for I have sinned. Well, what are you doing sinning? You have received actual righteousness from God.

Answer: Given that Trent says we can increase in righteousness or in justification, they must not think that you become morally perfect when you are imparted justification. This must be a sort of initial impartation of righteousness to you which you then grow in and increase in throughout your life. But I agree with you, it is hard to see how one could think that this was perfect or complete since it is something that you grow in.

Followup: Again, I think it is James 2:10 that says if you are guilty of one part, you are guilty of all. So in God’s view, if you are not absolutely, 100% perfect with his righteous, he can’t have a relationship with you.

Answer: I think that is the strength of the Reformers’ view – you are declared righteous and acquitted of all your sin. It is not as though you have some germ of righteousness now within you which is going to grow and increase. You are right. That would not suffice for complete acquittal and pardon and so forth. What the Protestant does will be to supplement justification with a doctrine of sanctification – that through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we do gradually come to be conformed to the image of Christ and experience a moral transformation over time. But the Catholic view seems to collapse that back into the doctrine of justification and says that we actually increase in our justification before God through our good works.

Question: It seems to me that the Catholic view puts the burden, or the responsibility, on the individual. If they are justified they will then increase in their moral . . . and through the sacraments to become a better, more moral person, which I would think lead to guilt because if they feel that they cannot or have not grown in that regard then they must go to confession, they must pay penance, they must do more to earn that. On the Protestant view, it seems that good works are a response to the sanctification. So you are doing it out of gratitude, which is very liberating. It is a very different inner response to that process – guilt versus joy. If I understand what you are saying.

Answer: I think that that observation is fair.[6] Now, if I were to speak on behalf of the Catholic Christian, Trent emphasizes that these good works that you do that merit eternal life are only done through the grace of God. So they would say it is God’s grace working itself out through you that enables you to do these meritorious good works.

Followup: But it is still enabling you. You are still doing it.

Answer: That’s right. And they are still meritorious. These are definitely works which increase your righteousness and thereby merit – that is the language that is used – merit eternal life even if those good works are wrought in you through the grace of God. I think you are right in saying that the Protestant view is very different and I think more biblical that these good works are the fruit of God’s work in your life. They are not meritorious.

Followup: It think, too, with the Protestant view, when you do them out of gratitude, it is not as though you are earning points or doing things whereas the other view, it seems to me, there is more of a self-centered approach in that – it is very slight, but – meriting brings in the self.

Answer: I hate to make judgments upon people’s motivations. I could imagine some Catholic Christian whose life has been radically transformed by God and who, out of deep gratitude, then wants to spend his life in service to Christ and living for him. So the motivation would be right. But nevertheless the theology is that the things that he is doing are meritorious, increases justification, and merit eternal life. There it seems to me the Protestant is quite right in drawing a line in saying that is erroneous.

Question: You use the terms “acquitted” and “pardoned” sort of in the same breath as if they are equal. I don’t tend to think of acquitted and pardoned as being exactly the same. While I was sitting here I looked them up in my dictionary and some of the definitions seemed to be very, very similar but could you tease out any difference there might be between acquitted and pardoned.

Answer: I wasn’t meaning to give any subtle difference between the two. I was meaning them as synonymous. You are declared not guilty by God.

Followup: I guess I would see acquitted as declared not guilty – maybe you did something. Well, gosh, I guess maybe they are the same! Pardon is like, you did it but I’m pardoning you.

Answer: OK, OK. If that is what you mean, then I would be talking about pardon and not acquittal. Because we are guilty and so need God’s pardon, not his recognition that “oh, well, you are not really guilty after all.” Good point. What I meant was pardon in that sense.

OK, well, we are out of time. What we will do next time is look at the New Perspective on Paul which claims that the Protestant church has been misled by the Reformers and have drastically misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of justification. So that will be next time.[7]


[1] 5:00

[2] 10:02

[3] 15:23

[4] 20:12

[5] 25:04

[6] 30:04

[7] Total Running Time: 33:53 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)