Imputation and Obedience


Saint Paul, teacher of justification by faith

Many critiques have been launched against the Protestant doctrine of divine imputation within the last century. Some of these critiques are understandable and even valid. For instance, some say that, within Paul’s thought, the transformative — sanctification — is not completely separated from the legal — justification. This is true. Luther himself saw this, and acknowledged that the legal leads to or even causes the transformative. When a judge acquits a criminal, this inevitably leads to a change in his life. He doesn’t return to jail after he has been acquitted! He is freed by the acquittal. It is the same with believers: if God acquits, he transforms. Those whom God has justified he necessarily sanctifies. The two are integrally connected, even organically connected.

With that said, justification within the Reformation tradition is still necessarily distinct from sanctification. Justification relates properly to something outside of the believer that is “accredited” or to the believer. Christ is the true just one, and thus his obedience and death are said within the Reformation tradition to be “imputed” to the believer. Imputation is not a legal fiction: it is something very true of Christ, but this truth of who Christ is is done on our behalf and thereby credited to our account. Christ obeys for us, and dies for us. This obedience and death is accounted to sinners who don’t have obedience and who deserve to die in their sins.

This is principally what Paul means in Corinthians when he says that “Christ died for our sins“. Christ’s death was not for himself, but for us! Imputation comes from the logic that our “moral account” is bankrupt. Language of course falls short here. But the point is that we have not obeyed God. Thus, we are said to be in a “debt”. Christ approaches the Father on our behalf, one might say as our defense lawyer, and offers the Father on our behalf, within our skin, what we didn’t. The apostle John uses this imagery when he calls Christ our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1-2). This is what the priestly office of Christ is all about: he becomes our advocate and offers himself on our behalf. This offering is his entire life and death; and it covers and amends our wrongdoings.

What is important to realize, is this advocacy doesn’t cover simply initial justification. It also covers the believer’s sanctification. Even though in sanctification we are made intrinsically holy, we do not reach complete holiness in this life. Even our best works are “stained”, as it were, with impure motives or weaknesses. Even the best works we give to God are really not good enough. It seems in my mind that this should be obvious.

It is for this reason that Christ’s priestly obedience is imputed even to our own intrinsic holiness in sanctification. This is the reasoning of Christ’s continued priestly intercession: he continually and always offers his saving work on our behalf to the Father. Based on this intercession, the Father graciously receives and accepts even our weakest efforts toward holiness. If our holiness were not stained with unholiness, why would Christ need to continually intercede on our behalf?

The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this reality quite well:

Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF, 16.6)

God looks at our works with a filter, as it were. Because believers are in his Son, he receives sincere works of obedience even if they are not entire holy. In fact, he receives them and imputes them as if they were his Son’s obedience. That is to say, he treats and delights in our works as he treats and delights in his Son’s work.

Now, at this point, many may read this and say: isn’t that a legal fiction? Can God really be said to be honest if he accepts impure works as if they were pure?

But this is a principle that everyone practices whether we know it or not. I enjoy my 4 year-old daughter’s crayon drawings, not because her sketching technique is on a professional level, but because she’s my daughter. I judge her talent through a filter: because she’s my daughter, I delight and reward her efforts even if they aren’t very good!

Or take another example: I am said to be a “son” of my wife’s parents, not because I am biologically their son, but because they receive me as their son by virtue of my marriage to my wife. This is the logic of imputation: we receive things or persons by virtue of some other reality. It isn’t fiction, it’s imputation.

Just the same, God receives and even delights in our sincere works of holiness “for the sake of Christ”. Our works are, as it were, graded on a curve, and received joyfully when we offer them up in the Son. We are like little children scribbling with crayons; and God takes great delight in those scribbles!

Justification and Resurrection


I recently wrote a post on justification, in which I said, in essence, that justification itself has transformative elements to it. It is a word of pardon which at once delivers from bondage to sin and death.

This comes from Paul’s gospel preaching in Acts 13:38-39, in which he says that by faith, one is “justified” from all the things from which the Mosaic law could not free. I noticed that most biblical translations usually translate the word justified as “freed”: “one is freed from all the things from which Moses could not free” (cf ESV). My conclusion was that the impulse was correct: God frees us from bondage through his creative word in justification. Or, his pronouncement effects what it says.

After reading the post again, I’m not quite convinced I went far enough into the forensic or courtroom imagery, and that I didn’t do justice to what I was meaning to say (go figure!).

So, I want to add another element here that I hope can be formatted or integrated with my previous post. I still hold to the former post, that salvation is a declarative-rescue from the effects of sin and death, but it is also true in scripture that what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection is judicial in nature, or rather relates to man’s guilt before God. So I want to expand a bit here, borrowing from the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran tradition.

I want to concentrate on one peculiar verse from Romans 4: Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.

I want to notice a couple things here:

First, Christ was delivered over for our sins. Paul connects Christ’s death with our sin. But what does he mean to say by this connection? Very simply, the death of Christ was the mechanism which released mankind from its debt or offense of sin. This is why the Bible commonly calls the cross a sacrifice, an oblation, a holy offering to the Father, which operates as man’s way to forgiveness; or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:2, it was a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”, meant to compensate for the original sin and actual sins.

The Catechism of the Catholic church explains the death of Christ by saying this:

[Christ’s sacrifice is first] a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is an offering of the Son of God made man, who is freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience. (paragraph 614)

His suffering was a self-gift, as self-offering, which, as the Catechism rightly states, “completes and surpasses all other sacrifices” found in the OT. It is offered to God the Father as a holy oblation of love.

The 39 Articles of the Anglican church explains his death this way: “[Christ came to] be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men” (Article II); and also: “[Christ] came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world” (Article XV).

The whole point here is that Christ offered himself as a holy sacrifice to God in order to take away the offense of sin. This is properly the negative side of salvation: Christ’s death and suffering made reparation between God and man. (And, just by way of aside, it is this same sacrifice which God the Father looks to in order that he may continue forgiving us. We sin every day, and why does he continue to forgive? The cross! It is eternal in its effects.)

OK, but what I want to notice here (finally we come to the whole point of this post!!) is that while Paul attributes forgiveness of sin to the cross, he attributes justification to the resurrection. Did you notice? Paul tells us: Christ “was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). It is important to note this; usually when Protestant scholars search for a biblical-theological import or corollary for justification, it is the cross. However, Paul says justification is related to the resurrection!

What all of this means is that justification, at least from this verse, involves a a union with the resurrected Christ that communicates spiritual life. I would also argue that justification, at least from the fullness of Paul’s corpus, involves the negative aspect of the release of sin-debt. Justification, then, it may be argued, is simultaneously a pronouncement by God of “not guilty” (or “forgiven” or “not condemned”) and a gift of divine life through union with Christ. Or, put another way, justification is a pronouncement of “not guilty” which actualizes inner renewal through union with Christ.

Hence, we come to Peter Leithart’s definition of deliverdict: Justification is a pronouncement of forgiveness and a gift of new resurrection life. Or, it is a forensic pronouncement which effects a deliverance from death and condemnation. The Council of Trent says this of justification: “justification is not only a remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man”. John Henry Newman defined justification in terms of a declarative word which was transformative: “[God] declares a fact, and makes it a fact by declaring it. He imputes, not a name but a substantial Word, which, being ‘ingrafted in our own hearts, is able to save our souls” (Lectures on Justification, Lecture 3, Par 8). God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects ontic renewal.

And actually, this makes sense when one considers the mechanism of Christ’s own resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is properly effected by God’s declaration of Jesus’ own innocence and righteousness. Christ was put to death as a sinner and wretch by the authorities, but God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead over all authorities and kings. Thus, God’s own judgment of Christ’s innocence effected his resurrection from the dead. They are one and the same action from God.

Newman himself calls Jesus’ resurrection his justification. Newman explains this way:

Our Lord’s justification, as St. Paul terms it,…took place upon His resurrection… Christ differs from us in this, that He was the true and eternal Son, we sons only by adoption; He holy by nature, we made holy beyond nature; but He does not differ in His justification, which, simply considered, was what I have been showing ours to be, an open acknowledgment of Him by the Father as righteous and well beloved, yet not nominally such (God forbid) but really. St. Paul, who in one place says that Christ was “justified by the Spirit,” (see 1 Tim 3:16) explains himself elsewhere by saying that he was “declared to be the Son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (see Rom 1:4) (Lectures on Justification, lecture 3, par 7)

God’s word about Christ’s own righteousness effected his deliverance from death. Newman argues that it is the same as us: God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects our union with Christ in his resurrection.

As we end, I want to look at one Lutheran scholar who has good insight on this issue. Jordan Cooper argues that Luther himself understood justification as both a forensic or declarative reality and as a ontological reality. Cooper says this:

Luther’s definition of justification contains two aspects: the legal and the effective. On the one hand, Luther confesses that we are imputed as entirely righteous through the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, and on the other, he confesses that through the means of faith, we receive a new heart. (The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3808-3810)

Jordan continues by saying that within the Lutheran tradition (at least for Luther), “imputation is the cause of sanctification and a renewed life” (Kindle loc 3813-14); and, “justification properly speaking is thus a legal declaration, but it is an effective declaration.” (Kindle loc 3827).

Cooper goes on to explain this principle in terms of God’s creative word:

To gain an understanding of the relationship between imputation and renewal, one need not go directly to Paul, but to the beginning of the Bible: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1: 3). God is a God who speaks. Not only does he speak, but he speaks with power. He does not speak descriptively, but as a divine potentate giving a command which is then brought into reality. Whereas human speech either describes, questions, or gives commands, God’s pronouncements enact what they proclaim. God says that it is so, and it is so. When God justifies the sinner, he is declared righteous and consequently is righteous. God’s word is a life-giving word and a creative word. As God declares the sinner to be justified, life is brought from death… (Kindle loc 3828-3834)

So then, justification is God’s word of forgiveness and acquittal which effects union with Christ in his resurrection.

Paul’s Very First Sermon

Paul’s teaching on justification has been, to say the least, controversial throughout church history. Luther’s own departure, or rather excommunication, from the Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the most palpable example. He came to understand justification as a courtroom reality. Because Christ has suffered on our behalf, God declares us to be in the right, and thus we are acquitted and released from his wrath.

The Roman Catholic Church, in response to Luther’s articulation of salvation as declarative, wrote the decrees of the Council of Trent, which reinforced their teaching that justification is not legal or declarative, but is rather ontological and sanctifying. God’s salvation of the sinner is the filling of the soul with sanctifying grace, thus making man just interiorly, not exteriorly.

The Protestant-Catholic divide has not since eased, and both churches have since only made their stances more firm. What I want to do in this post is present a view that, perhaps, can avoid the controversies between traditions.

Before I go on to describe this view of justification, I do want to say that I’m borrowing from a number of Protestant as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians who have done the groundwork for me. In this post I am borrowing particularly from theologians Peter Leithart an Jordan Cooper.

To begin my examination of Paul’s theology of justification, I want to look at Paul’s very first sermon, which comes from the book of Acts. We know that Luke wrote Acts, and also that he was influenced largely by Paul. He traveled with Paul for much of his missionary journey, and thus we should expect to find Pauline elements in his books.

Luke’s first recorded sermon by Paul is in Acts 13, and lucky for us, Paul preaches the gospel by using the term “justified”, or dikaioo. There is no doubt that the term is a forensic term. However, I do believe that by focusing on this sermon in Acts 13, we will better understand what Paul means when he uses the term elsewhere. Paul’s sermon involves several important elements: Christ is presented as the fulfillment of the promise of a new Davidic king, who will bring about an eternal kingdom (v. 22-23). God established Christ as King when he raised him up from the dead, never to see corruption again (v. 36). David himself died and saw corruption. But by his resurrection, Christ has overcome death and corruption, and therefore all who believe in him are thus “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (v. 39). The ESV renders “justified” as “freed”. It is important to note that this is an interpretive jump: the word in Greek is justified (dikaioo), the same one that Paul uses in Romans and in Galatians.

The impulse to interpret dikaioo as freed however is justified (pun intended!). The reason is because the entire context of Paul’s sermon is deliverance or freedom from death and corruption: King David died along with everyone else; yet Christ, the true Davidic king, was raised, never to see corruption again. Therefore, everyone who believes in him is dikaioo from death.  Paul’s use of dikaioo is thus liberative.

Peter Leithart agrees with me:

In Acts 13:38-39, he tells a Jewish audience that forgiveness comes through Jesus the Messiah, and that everyone who believes (pisteuo) is justified (dikaioo) from all the things that the law of Moses could not justify (dikaioo). It’s all there – justification by faith in contrast to justification by law – but it’s all sorted differently from what we (Protestants) expect. Paul’s point about the law is not about human efforts at law-keeping, but about the efficacy of the law itself as an agent of justification. What could not be done through the law of Moses is done by Jesus. Further, “justify” here does not refer to reckoning a sinner righteous. It is justification from (apo panton . . . dikaioutai), sensibly translated as “freed” in many English Bibles. Torah did not liberate from some “things”; Jesus does for those who trust Him. (source)

By using justify, Paul thus means to say that Jesus liberates, in contrast to the law which cannot. Reformed Christians should notice that there are elements from the common Reformed presentation of justification. For the Reformation understanding of justification, God is presented as Judge, and we are guilty sinners. Justification is thus commonly used as courtroom language. God, the righteous judge, justifies, or acquits us on the basis of Christ’s death. But here in Acts 13, justification is not presented in courtroom language, and God is not presented as judge. Rather, death is presented by Paul as the common enemy of all peoples; and to be justified means to be freed from the grip of sin and death through the resurrection of Christ from the dead (mind you, the emphasis is not Christ’s death, but his resurrection!!), something the law could could not accomplish.

What do we do with this? What I would suggest, and what Leithart suggests, is that dikaioo is Paul’s way of explaining that through Christ men can be freed from the bondage of sin, Satan, and death. Leithart explains:

In short, Paul is not dealing with the guilt of sin; the “picture” here is not the courtroom; Paul presents a scene of battle, or, better, he pictures the sinner an oppressed slave under the thumb of a harsh master. To be “justified” from “master sin” is to be delivered from his hand, from his lordship and mastery; in this context, to be justified from sin is to be liberated. (The Federal Vision, “Deliver Me, Oh God”, Kindle Locations 3499-3502)

Thus, justification does not picture God as the stern Judge who accuses us of wrongs done, but by the sacrifice of Jesus, acquits us of those wrongs done. God is rather the great liberator. He is the one who breaks the chains of sin’s bondage, who overthrow’s the Devil’s schemes, and who destroys the great enemy death. At this point my atonement theology becomes clear: Christ is the great victor over sin, Satan, and death. What Gustav Aulen has called Christus Victor, is in my opinion, the major thematic frame of atonement and salvation in the Bible.

Surprisingly enough, Lutheran scholarship has understood justification similarly as well. Jordan Cooper says this about justification:

For Lutheran theology, sanctification and justification have an intimate connection which cannot be severed. Sanctification is the effect of justification. It is not a separate benefit of union with Christ, but is the declarative reality of righteousness (in justification) becoming an effective intrinsic reality. Sanctification is thus the “working out” of justification.

Resurrection is thoroughly intertwined with the Pauline concept of sanctification, as it is with justification. In encouraging good works in the Christian life, Paul states, “If the Spirit of   him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies   through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8: 11). Sanctification is a result of the resurrecting act of God through the declarative act of justification.

(Cooper, Jordan, The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology, Kindle Locations 4010-4016)

This is odd because, of course, Luther is the one who initially understood justification in declarative terms. But it is even more surprising because Cooper sounds an awful lot like John Henry Newman. Newman was an Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism. For Newman, justification was a speech-act of God. Just like God’s Word caused the universe to come into being, God’s declarative Word makes the sinner righteous. Or, think of Christ calling Lazarus from the tomb. It was his word that rose him from the dead! Thus, justification is declarative, but it is also transformative. It is a great speech-act of deliverance by God from the powers of sin and death. Peter Leithart follows Newman’s thought by calling justification a “deliverdict”, a verdict that at once delivers.

Theologian Douglas Campbell has made a further insight that Paul wrote about justification by faith from prison. He was quite literally in bondage, under Rome’s tyranny, while he wrote about justification by faith. Would it not then make sense to understand justification as a liberative declaration over the great powers of evil? I think so! Something else to note is that Paul’s main salvation motif was the exodus, which, was liberation from slavery. Romans 6 comes to mind here.

In my next post I will explain the atonement in terms of victory and as liberative power. For now though, I’ve included a video below by Chris Tilling to further expound on justification as liberation. It’s a great little presentation, just 25 mins.


Wright, Paul and Justification


In his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, NT Wright attempts to outline his understanding of Christian salvation, particularly on the meaning and significance of justification. He is a proponent of the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP), which is an attempt to place the writings of Paul within his first century context, and to stop demonizing Judaism.

While the NPP is and has been a controversial movement within the Protestant world, I do feel that what Wright et al are attempting to do is helpful. In particular, Wright’s attempt to place Paul’s understanding of justification, and Christ’s work, in the context of the larger narrative of Israel, and covenant, and what Wright calls “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (98), is incredibly illuminating. In my opinion, it opens up the doctrine of salvation to the entire narrative of scripture. Indeed, Wright explains that justification — like any biblical doctrine — must have its context. And when taken out of that context, it loses its biblical, even Jewish, emphasis.

There is one section in this book that is especially helpful. In this section, Wright explains that to understand the gospel, and justification, one must understand Christology; that is to say, one must understand who Christ is, and what he was about. Then we can get what justification is.

Wright explains:

Paul uses Christos, designating Jesus as the Messiah, in conscious belief that the Messiah is one in whom two things in particular happen:

  1. “The Messiah” is the one who draws Israel’s long history to its appointed goal…The single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed…to culminate in the Messiah, who would fight the victorious battle against the ultimate enemy, build the new temple, and inaugurate a worldwide rule of justice, peace and prosperity. Paul of course, saw all of these as being redefined, granted that the Messiah was Jesus; but none of them lost
  2. The Messiah is therefore the one…in whom God’s people are summed up, so that what is true of him is true of them. To belong to the people over whom David, or David’s son, was ruling was spoken of in the Old Testament as being “in David” or “in the son of Jesse”. Paul can therefore speak of Christians “entering into the Messiah” through baptism and faith, as being “in him” as a result. He is the “seed of Abraham”, not simply as a single person but because he “contains”, as the goal of God’s Israel-plan, the whole people of God in himself. (103-104)

Wright makes the point that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who came for the explicit purpose of summing up and completing Israel’s long history: he is the true and faithful Israelite. He is Israel itself realizing God’s Abrahamic promise to bless the nations! Consequently, Wright also explains that all who believe in Christ are caught up “in Christ”, and thus participate in him as the true Israel. Put another way, we are taken up in the faithful Israelite, such that we constitute the new Israel in him.

Salvation then — for Wright at least — is being caught up into the new Israel, into Christ himself, and entering into the new fulfilled people of God. It is constituting the new, eschatological, people of God.

Wright will go on to say that while justification is a distinctly juridicial term — he defines it as a declaration that believers are “in the right”, it is a “status that someone has when the court has found in their favor” (90) — it is a term which must be placed within the Israel, or covenantal context. Put simply, believers are declared to be in the right because of the reality that they are in Messiah, who is in himself faithful Israel, who has fulfilled God’s promises for the world.

Calvin and the New Perspective on Paul


The New Perspective on Paul, as put forward by several Protestant theologians (Wright, Sanders, Dunn et al), is the thought that when Paul speaks of justification not being by “works of the law”, he is only speaking of the ceremonial and civil laws, not the moral laws.

What this translates to, is that when Paul says: “one is not justified by works of the law”, he is exclusively speaking of the Jewish aspects of the Mosaic Law. So one cannot be justified through the Mosaic laws. The moral law, however, is still in play. Hence, one is justified by faith in Christ plus cooperation with God’s grace in obedience to the moral law. Works done in grace play into justification, however that may look.

James Dunn explains:

[D]enial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws. (New Perspective on Paul, 191)

In this way, Paul is not doing away with all works, but rather works of the ceremonial and civil type. One is not justified by being a “good Jew”; rather one is justified in the last day by being “in Christ” and cooperating in good works through grace. This means that justification is a process, worked in the now, but finished at the final day in harmony with our works in Christ. Essentially, this conflates justification, and sanctification, making them one action of God and man.

What some may not know, is that this interpretation is not new. In fact, Calvin dealt with this argument in his dialogue with Roman Catholics of his day.

There are two basic arguments that Calvin dealt with in his time: the first was what is commonly known as the New Perspective — that works of the ceremonial and civil law were what Paul was arguing against; not works done in the context of the New Covenant. Another argument he dealt with, was that the works Paul was so set against were works done outside of grace: i.e. before one is regenerated. So, works done in a natural state could not justify; after regeneration, however, one can cooperate with grace and grow in justification after being in Christ. In his Institutes, Calvin denied both stances.

He said:

[Catholics] explain “works” as meaning those which men not yet reborn do only according to the letter by the effort of their own free will, apart from Christ’s grace. But they deny that these [works of the law] refer to spiritual works. For, according to them, man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. For they say that Paul so spoke for no other reason than to convince the Jews, who were relying upon their own strength, that they were foolish to arrogate righteousness to themselves, since the Spirit of Christ alone bestows it upon us not through any effort arising from our own nature…[They also argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works. (Institutes, 744)

So we can see that this issue of “works” came up long before the New Perspective. How does Calvin respond to this charge? And how to works and salvation relate?

Calvin says:

[These theologians] do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal 3:11-12]. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled what the law commands should obtain salvation; but this is the righteousness of faith, to believe that Christ died and rose again [Rom 10:5, 9]… (ibid, 744)

In other words, in the NT, there is a hard line between faith and works in general. Works in general are said to be one way of justification, while faith is said to be another.

Calvin continues:

[They argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works… Do they think that the Apostle was raving when he brought forward these passages to prove his opinion? “The man who does these things will live by them” [Gal 3:12], and, “Cursed be every one who does not fulfill all things written in the book of the law” [Gal 3:10]. Unless they have gone mad they will not say that life was promised to keepers of ceremonies. If these passages to be understood of the moral law, there is no doubt that moral works are also excluded from the power of justifying. (ibid, 749)

Calvin puts forward the verse: “cursed by everyone who does not fulfill all things written…”. What he proposes is that “all things” necessarily include the moral tenets of the law. What this means for him, is that works and faith are not and cannot be united together in justification. Justification and sanctification must be separated.

Calvin explains:

[I]n its proper place,.. the benefits of Christ — sanctification and righteousness — are different. From this it follows that not even spiritual works [works done out of regeneration] come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith… From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely on the intercession of Christ’s righteousness. This is equivalent to saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation (ibid, 744, 753)

In other words, imputation of righteousness and regeneration or sanctification are distinguished, separated. Sanctification is something that flows from imputation, but is not the same thing. New Perspective (and Romans Catholics) place together the work of justification and sanctification, such that one can participate in his final justification through works done in grace.

Charles Hodge on Differing Schemes of Justification

Charles_Hodge _wts_1

Charles Hodge has an excellent (long, but excellent) Systematic Theology on Reformed Theology. One reason that it is excellent, is that he takes much of his book to examine the differences between the Reformed tradition and others.

In his excurses on justification, Hodge examines the differences between the Reformed concept of justification to that of the Catholic and Arminian tradition.

First, Hodge describes the Reformed concept of justification as,

a judicial or forensic act, i. e., an act of God as judge proceeding according to law, declaring that the sinner is just, i. e., that the law no longer condemns him, but acquits and pronounces him to be entitled to eternal life.

Hodge clarifies further by saying that justification is not,

simply pardon and restoration. It includes pardon, but it also includes a declaration that the believer is just or righteous in the sight of the law. He has a right to plead a righteousness which completely satisfies its demands.

So for a Reformed understanding of justification, there is both a negative — pardon of sins — and a positive — imputation of justice. This is because Christ, as head of the elect sinner, positions himself in his place. And in his stead, Christ endures the punishment of sin, and obeys the requirements of the law.

And so justification is an extrinsic, declarative act of God. It is an unchanging objective reality in which God “declares that notwithstanding [the sinner’s] person sinfulness (actual) and unworthiness, he is accepted as righteous on the ground of what Christ has done for him”. As Christ is righteous, so God says of the sinner.

In contrast, Hodge brings in the differing doctrines on justification, first the Roman Catholic concept. He describes this concept of justification as

subjective justification. That is, that justification consists in an act or agency of God making the sinner subjectively holy. Romanists confound or unite justification and sanctification. They define justification as “the remission of sin and infusion of new habits of grace.” By remission of sin they mean not simply pardon, but the removal of everything of the nature of sin from the soul. Justification, therefore, with them, is purely subjective , consisting in the destruction of sin and the infusion of holiness.

By this, what he means to say is that justification is not objective, extrinsic, but the opposite. It is the act of God, whereby he makes the sinner subjectively, ontologically, actually holy. That is, justification is pardon of past sins, and the positive infusion (not imputation) of the righteousness of Christ, which makes the sinner just. So what God declares to be just is actually just.

Catholic John Henry Newman says of the Roman concept of justification:

Justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous (Lectures on Justification)

By fiat of God, his creative work makes the sinner subjectively just (by participation in Christ). Hodge is right, then, when he says that Roman Catholics “unite justification and sanctification”. Because of this, justification is not objective. It is always changing (for the better or worse). The justified person, by infusion of Christ’s righteousness, can cooperate and grow in justice, or can degenerate and even sin mortally.

After this, Hodge evaluates the Arminian concept of justification. Hodge begins by explaining where Arminius differed from the other Reformers. This difference was of course over the Reformers’ concept of election. But his disagreement of election led him (more particularly his followers) to a different of understanding of justification.

Hodge says of Arminius’ concept of election,

The purpose of election [for Arminius] is not a purpose to save, and to that end to give faith and repentance to a definite number of individuals, but a purpose to save those who repent, believe, and persevere in faith until the end. The work of Christ has, therefore, an equal reference to all men. He made full satisfaction to God for the sins of all and every man, so that God can now consistently offer salvation to all men on the conditions laid down in the Gospel. This is a self -consistent scheme. One part implies, or necessitates the admission of the others.

God’s election and atonement thus change from particular and individual, to universal and open. This, of course, changes one’s view of justification. In the Reformed concept, Christ came to vicariously mediate himself for a particular select group of people by obeying in their place, and dying in their place. In Arminius’ view, Christ came to save anyone who would repent and believe (conditional election).

For this reason, he and his followers — known as the Remonstrants — regarded the atonement as merely satisfaction of justice, and justification as only remission of past sins and acceptance by God.

Hodge is dismissive of this view:

[Arminius’ followers, the Remonstrants,] denied that Christ’s work was a real satisfaction for sin, [and] they of necessity denied any real justification of the sinner. Justification with them is merely pardon.

Obviously, Hodge shows his Reformed colors in saying that the Remonstants denied a “real satisfaction”. What Hodge means to say is that Jesus’ sacrifice was general in nature. It satisfied God’s justice, but not for a specific people, as in the Reformed view. So salvation is open to all, but is not accomplished without the positive response of the individual (which puts the burden on the person, rather than God). More than that, Hodge means to point out that justification for the Remonstrants, is only a pardoning of past sins (negative), and contains no imputation or infusion of Christ’s righteousness (positive). To him, this makes justification lesser than Reformed or Catholic understanding.

Hodge explains,

As the righteousness of Christ is not imputed to the believer, the ground of his justification, that which is accepted as righteousness , is faith and its fruits, or faith and evangelical obedience.

For the Arminian Remonstrants then, justification is the pardon of past sins, and afterward necessarily requires positive Christian obedience (because there is no imputation).

And so, Hodge covers — I would say fairly well — the three main spectrums of justification. First is the reformed, extrinsic justification, which is not connected subjectively to the believer. Second is the subjective, actual, ontological justification of the sinner in Roman Catholicism. Lastly, is the pardoning justification of Arminius and the Remonstrants.

Catholicism vs Protestantism on Faith + Works: What’s the Difference?

faith works

I wrote a POST earlier, describing the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. And what I said essentially, was that justification was the doctrine that distinguished the Reformers from the Catholicism of their day. And it really isn’t different nowadays.

What I want to consider in this post, is how justification in either position deals with “works”, or state differently, how works are connected to a believer’s justification.

Catholics commonly say that justification, or final salvation, comes through faith and works. Now, to a Protestant, this rubs against the core of the solas. Justification, even final justification, is by faith alone! 

OK… But, why do Catholics argue this? Is Catholicism a dry religion, where you earn God’s love? Well, not quite. Let’s review the Catholic understanding of justification quickly to understand:

For Catholics, justification is not merely declarative. Or legal. Justification does involve a status change; but there is an added element. Justification, in the Catholic scheme, is an infusion of Christ’s righteousness within the believer; what I mean is that in salvation, Jesus’ righteousness is actually infused into the believer by union with him; that by faith / sacraments, the believer contains actual, “ontological”, “corporeal” righteousness from Jesus. And this righteousness grows in the believer as they cooperate with God in the sacraments, and live out that righteousness.

What all of this means is that final justification is dependent on the believer’s cooperation with this gift of Christ’s righteousness. And through cooperation, Christ’s life increases in the believer, enabling them to be “actually righteous”. As they partake more and more in the corporeal life of Christ, in union with him, they grow to become more and more “justified”, or “saintly”. This is why Catholics say that final justification is by faith and works. Faith is the initial thing which gives the gift of righteousness; but, because Christ’s righteousness is by nature ontological, the believer must cooperate and grow in that righteousness. In other words, Catholics view justification and sanctification (growth in justification) as one big thing.

Catholic Peter Kreeft says,

Catholic theology teaches that justification and sanctification, faith and works, are not separated, as Luther thought. Rather, “ ‘[j]ustification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ 6 ” (CCC 1989) (source, pg 126)

Catholic Taylor Marshall says,

As a Catholic, I understand [justification to be] juridical [or legal] AND transformative. A sinner “becomes righteous” [actually, or ontologically] and this is why the Greek word was rightly translated as iustificatio—“making just.”

I’m saying that a legal, declarative change is not merely what God does for us. Salvation involves a union with Christ to the sinner and that union transforms the sinner into a new creation.

I was not merely “declared righteous” through faith, rather I “became righteous,” because Christ washed away my original sin and my personal sins so that I was a new creation. Grace filled my soul and the Holy Spirit came upon me (source)

That being said, it’s not quite fair to call Catholicism “works-based”, as many Protestants do. But, because of their sort of “corporeal” understanding of Christ’s righteousness, meaning that it is infused in the believer, and because that believer must cooperate with that righteousness, there is a reality to the claim that salvation is by a sort of “working faith”. The Catholic Catechism even has a theology of “merit”, whereby the believer, cooperating with Christ’s infused righteousness, “merits” eternal life. Granted, it’s not by the believer’s own righteousness. It is by Christ’s righteousness.

So, Catholics see faith and works as one big thing, whereby justification is a gradual process (sanctification) as the believer cooperates with the grace of God.

Now, how does this contrast with Protestant theology?

In the Protestant scheme, justification is not the ontological infusion of righteousness. Rather, it is the legal imputation of righteousness. Now this might seem like a small change, but it’s actually important, as I said in my last post. Rather than righteousness being actually infused, righteousness is accredited to the believer; and the believer is righteous not by cooperation with that righteousness, but solely on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. The righteousness that is the believer’s, is only their’s because Christ himself is righteous. In other words, God accredits the believer with the perfect account of Jesus, and they are thereby legally righteous in a complete sense. Nothing lacks. Justification then, is a once-for-all declaration. It is a finished, closed reality. And the believer doesn’t need to grow in righteousness for final salvation, because the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed / accredited, is complete already.

That being said, how do good works come into play in the Protestant scheme? Do they come into play at all. Why, yes!

What a Protestant would say is that good works are necessarily involved, but only insofar as they blossom, or grow out of that once-for-all justification. In other words, good works are a fruit, a confirmation or justification, not part of justification. Protestants want to be careful to separate “justification” and “sanctification”. They see them as separate realities.

Justification is a closed reality. And sanctification is proof that one has experienced that reality. Good works mean that God has already justified that person. And a person who has good works has been justified.

OK, got it. But why is that true?

The reason is because justification, while being a legal reality, leads to and causes ontological realities. What does that mean? What I mean, is that once God declares a sinner “righteous”, he doesn’t just stop there! He also forgives, regenerates, and indwells that person. And what is regeneration, but God creating new life within that person? And when the Spirit indwells the believer, what can happen but a change in lifestyle? 

In other words, justification is but the start of many changes within the believer. And if the believer has spiritual fruit, or obedience to God, what can it mean but that they have been justified? So someone who claims to have a living faith proves it by living out new-creation realities. As RC Sproul says, “true faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness” (source). That sounds awfully Catholic! Well, OK. We aren’t saying that good works aren’t important. Catholics and Protestants agree, they are.

We just disagree about why they are important.

So while Catholics say that justification and sanctification are one process, Protestants say that justification is one thing, and that sanctification necessarily follows, but is not that same one thing. These are small differences, but as you can hopefully see, they diverge as the believer attempts to live out their spiritual life. While I believe that Catholics and Protestants can call one another “brothers”, they do have some important differences.

Catholicism verses Protestantism: What’s the main difference?


I have been studying Catholic theology lately, examining the major disagreements it has with my Protestant theology.

While there are major differences, things like the sinlessness of Mary, or the veneration of saints and icons, or papal authority, this was not the largest difference I saw. And to be honest, there are explanations for these practices that aren’t altogether outlandish (though I would still disagree).

Another difference that some might point out is how the Catholics view the sacraments. According to the Catholic Catechism, Catholics understand the sacraments to be “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving”. In other words, Jesus himself gives life to his church in the sacraments. So in baptism, Jesus himself effects regeneration. In confirmation, Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit. In the Eucharist, Christians quite literally are nourished by Jesus’ body. And this is because, according to Catholic theology, the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ. And through his body, in the sacraments, he saves his people. Nevertheless, Protestants, healthy ones at least, understand the importance of the sacraments, and that Jesus really does impart grace through them (although we would understand them differently of course).

I wouldn’t even see grace as the primary difference. All too often, Catholic theology is seen as works-based, religious, dry. However, every Catholic I know would deny that. In fact, grace is central to Catholic theology. The Catechism states that salvation “has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”. Who could disagree with that? Grace really is present in Catholic theology.

So then, what is the big difference? 

To me, the thing that makes Protestants and Catholics diverge; the rub, as it were, is what “justification” means. Justification means two different things in Protestant and Catholic theology — did you know that?

For Protestants, justification is the declaration that sinners, though they be sinners, are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Because Christ was obedient in our place, on our behalf, we are given, or imputed Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by the righteousness of another, not our own. As Luther says, justification is the gift of an “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith”. We are saved not because we are actually righteous (though we will be righteous in glory), but because Jesus is. So that is Protestant “justification”.

But Catholics do not see justification this way. Though they would still hold to justification, they would define it as the transference from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. And in this transference, rather than Christ’s righteousness being imputed, his righteousness is imparted, or infused within us. What they mean is that the merits of Christ are literally infused into our nature, thereby making us not legally righteous, but actually righteous. Andrew Preslar writes,

[J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source)

The Catholic Catechism writes, “justification conforms us to the righteousness of God”. This is very important here. Catholic theology rejects “legal… terms alone”, and says that justification is the act by which by God infuses the life of Christ in us, thereby allowing us to be righteous in the real sense of the word now.

Now here’s the important part: for the Catholic church, because the merits and righteousness of Christ are literally infused, it is now the role of God’s justified church to cooperate with God’s grace and live out a righteous life, thereby meriting eternal life. Final salvation, for the Catholic church, depends on us living out the righteousness of Christ infused within. This is why the sacraments are so important. The Eucharist is Christ giving us more grace to live out a righteous life. Confession is given to absolve any mortal sin which extinguishes the righteousness of Christ infused in us. Impartation or infusion of Jesus’ righteousness, means that we can now live out the law and merit eternal life.

Now let me be fair: this isn’t salvation by self-merit. In Catholicism, final salvation is not dependent on us living out our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ infused within. In this way, it is still grace-given righteousness.

However, as a Protestant, I can’t help but notice how the burden is truly on you. As the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

The Catechism clarifies, however, saying,

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace

While Protestants do have a robust doctrine of sanctification and perseverance, we will not say that growth is tied to our final justification. Justification and sanctification are not bound together in Protestant theology. But for Catholics, justification is a work that God begins freely in us by baptism, but is then merited through sanctification, or cooperation in Christ’s righteousness infused.

As Catholics would say, justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. It is by faith working through love, living out “the divine life” as sons of God.

So, Protestants say justification is imputation. Catholics say that justification is infusion. Small wording change, but to me, this creates the biggest difference in the end.

Want a Catholic’s perspective on the difference? Here is Robert Barron on the Council of Trent, which was created in response to the Protestant Reformation. To get the gist of it, skip to minute 8:45: