Attacks Against Justification
The Doctrine of Justification, Part 3
of Justification was discussed thoroughly at the time of the Reformation
and became the doctrine of a standing or falling Church. One might
have thought that this would have settled discussion regarding its
meaning and importance. However, such has not been the case. The
Roman Catholic Church, in its definitive statements at the Council
of Trent, has officially condemned the Protestant doctrine of justification
by faith on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In
its place, Rome has taught an infused righteousness given at baptism
and one that is progressively worked out until perfect righteousness
If the Protestant
doctrine of justification was opposed at the Reformation, we should
not be surprised that it has continually been attacked. While we
will not review all the disputes relating to this doctrine, we will
call the reader's attention to three attacks that are being made
at the present time. These should not be considered exhaustive,
but indicative of the place where the battle is being waged.
warns us that the Church can never be indifferent to opposition.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and this applies to the
spiritual realm as well.
FIRST ATTACK: THE ATTEMPT TO RECONCILE THE IMPOSSIBLE
a document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together
was released with a great amount of publicity. Without question
this was a very controversial publication. Theologians attempted
to craft a document that would permit both Evangelicals and Catholics
to work together on common concerns. The underlying philosophy was
that Evangelicals and Catholics have more in common than they do
with Liberal theology. Both parties agree on many biblical doctrines
including the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the need of man for
of Evangelicals and Catholics Together was that Catholics
and Evangelicals should stop their polemical warfare and join forces
to resist an enemy that was making great inroads in modern life.
Prominent in this attempt were the Evangelicals Charles Colson and
James I. Packer. Catholics included Richard Neihous, the editor
of First Things.
going into detail concerning the entire document, several controversial
statements were made. First, there was the tacit agreement that
both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals were brothers in the Lord,
i.e. they shared a common salvation. There was also the statement
that attempts to proselytize from one group to another should cease.
controversial statement, however, dealt with salvation, especially
the doctrine of justification. The document stated that both Catholics
and Evangelicals were justified by grace. It is true that both sides
would agree that one is justified by grace as the ground or basis
of salvation. However, Evangelicals and Catholics Together
failed to distinguish between the differences regarding the instrumental
means of justification. Evangelicals believe the instrumental means
of justification is faith; we are justified by faith. When a person
trusts in Christ, His righteousness is imputed, or put to the account,
of the person. Justification is thus, in the Evangelical understanding,
a change of legal status from condemnation to one of being declared
righteous. The person now enjoys a new legal standing before God,
having been declared righteous on account of Christ's righteousness
imputed to their account. In summary, the person is justified by
faith alone in Christ alone.
Catholic Church teaches the instrumental cause of justification
is baptism, one of the seven sacraments. Baptism regenerates the
person, removes original sin, and infuses the righteousness of Christ.
The individual cooperates with this infused grace and, as a result,
becomes progressively holier. When the person reaches the standard
that God requires, then they are justified. In this view, the righteousness
that justifies a person is a combination of Christ's righteousness
infused in the person and the individual's own righteousness that
results from cooperating with the grace of God.
things stand out regarding the justification taught by the Roman
Catholic Church. First, it is a change of one's moral nature. Second,
justification is progressive. Third, one can never be assured that
he has done enough for God to accept him. Evangelicals are convinced
that the Roman Catholic Church has confused the doctrine of sanctification,
or making one holy, with the doctrine of justification, or declaring
As of the
writing of this article, debate continues over this very important
issue. Several clarifying statements have been issued but the real
crux of the disagreement has never been addressed. The question
is whether it is possible to reconcile an imputed (legal) righteousness
and an infused (moral) righteousness. Both parties agree that the
person is in need of the righteousness of Christ. However, disagreement
remains as to the means by which the sinner receives it. The questions
resolves itself into this: is a person justified by faith alone
as taught by the Reformers or is a person justified by baptism as
taught by the Roman Catholic Church?
has not been confined to Evangelicals and Catholics Together;
it has also been addressed in dialogue between the Roman Catholic
and the Lutheran Churches. There has been a desire to reunite the
two Churches. Many, on both sides, have concluded that the Reformation
was a tragedy and have sought to bring the two back into organic
union. In 1997 A Final Proposal was issued in the Joint
Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is interesting
to read the following statement taken from the Preamble, Statement
Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show
that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches
and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common
understanding of our justification by God’s grace through
faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches
about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths
of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining
differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for
doctrinal condemnations. 
the Preamble is an explanation of various aspects of the
doctrine of justification. Especially interesting is Section 4.3
entitled Justification by Faith and through Grace. The
Lutheran explanation of justification is given in the following
words: According to Lutheran understanding, God justifies sinners
in faith alone (sola fide).  The Catholic position is
defined as follows: Persons are justified through Baptism as hearers
of the Word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is
forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace…
statements only reinforce the conclusion that the failure to distinguish
between the instrumental means and between an imputed or infused
righteousness allows both parties to agree. However, the agreement
is superficial only and also fails to make clear that the righteousness
that justifies is Christ's righteousness alone. For that reason,
Martin Luther laid great stress on what he called an alien righteousness
that originated from outside the person; it was the righteousness
of Christ that was imputed to us. The Roman Catholic Church insisted
that the righteousness that justifies is partly the righteousness
of Christ and partly the righteousness of the individual. Despite
all the claims to the contrary the Joint Declaration has
not dealt adequately with that difference. It simply is impossible
to reconcile the differences between an imputed and infused righteousness.
Until both parties agree to one or the other they cannot be in agreement.
the entire work of the Reformation on the reality of an imputed
righteousness. It was the righteousness of Christ that justified
him before God. It was an alien righteousness because Luther
contributed nothing to it. This is the teaching of the Word of God
as Paul expresses it in Romans 3:22, "even the righteousness
of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe;
for there is no distinction." For that reason, the Reformers
were adamant in stressing that instrumental means of justification
was faith alone (sola fide).
SECOND ATTACK: DISTORTIONS OF THE TEACHING OF PAUL
attack is more of a distortion than a frontal attack on the Protestant
doctrine of justification by faith. It is also significant that
it comes from within Evangelical circles from a theologian who has
made significant contributions to the understanding of the Word
of God. The person is N. T. Wright who has been nominated to the
position of Bishop of Durham, England.
to this dispute, it is important to note that there have been differing
views of the Apostle Paul and his contribution to the understanding
of the Gospel. There are some who believe that Paul distorted the
simple message of the Good News as announced by the Lord Himself.
Basically this was the position maintained by Liberals of the early
20th century such as Albert Schweitzer. However, there were others
who maintained that Paul was the great teacher of the Church who
had been given the privilege of explaining the Gospel by means of
his letters. However, both the defenders and critics of Paul saw
him as being consistent with himself and the difference was over
a correct or wrong view of Christ and His work.
this began to be questioned in recent years. Now the debate rages
over Paul himself. Critics are now stating that the church has misunderstood
Paul. Before they stated that Paul misunderstood the Lord. How has
the church misunderstood Paul? It is by interpreting Paul's experience
on the road to Damascus as a conversion narrative. The older view
stated that Paul was a rabid Jew who sought to destroy the church
so he persecuted the Christians. However, on his trip to Damascus,
the Lord Himself met him on the way and revealed Himself to him.
As a result, Paul was converted from a lost person, although very
religious, to one who had been saved by Jesus. Paul was not only
converted, he was commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to
the Gentiles. Paul declared that he received his apostleship and
his message by revelation from Jesus Christ Himself.
Now we are
told that this interpretation of Paul is wrong. Paul was not unconverted,
but merely a misguided, Jew. According to this view of Paul, Paul
was already a converted man when he traveled to Damascus. He was
indeed a member of the covenant community of Jews and had already
been accepted by God. In other words, he was already in a right
relationship with God and did not need to be justified. However,
Paul did not see any place in the covenant community for the Gentiles,
he was in total opposition to their inclusion. The revelation that
Paul received from Jesus on the Damascus road was not one of salvation
but that the new covenant community of God's people included the
Gentiles as well. For a pious Jew, this was a startling revelation.
Paul's commission, as received from the Lord Jesus, was not to announce
the Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ but to proclaim the good
news that the Gentiles were not full members of God's covenant community.
As a result,
the teaching regarding salvation or justification is reduced to
an announcement of acceptance into God's covenant community. According
to this view, there is nothing in the Gospel that speaks of sin,
alienation, spiritual guilt and condemnation, imputation of Christ's
righteousness, and a new legal relationship before God. However,
there is much regarding acceptance and welcome into the new community
of God's people.
are still in the process of being formulated and one need be hesitant
to predict where they may lead. However, one thing is certain. If
this teaching is the true view of Paul and what constitutes justification,
Luther certainly knew nothing about it. However, Luther did know
the guilt of sin, and his inability to find forgiveness on the basis
of his own works. Luther never knew what peace of heart and acceptance
by God was until he placed his faith in Christ as the One who paid
the penalty for his sins. What we have in this theology is a repudiation
of the doctrine of justification by faith and the great advance
in how the grace of God is conveyed to the human
soul. There is a great amount of difference between a Gospel that
announces forgiveness of sins and one that announces that a person
is now a member of God's covenant community.
THIRD ATTACK: INDIFFERENCE IN EVANGELICAL CHURCHES
this may appear to be an unfair accusation. There is a great amount
of infighting among Christians already. Why should we create more?
Without doubt, this is a true statement and there is the need to
be careful in expressing concerns lest more damage than good is
there are some well-attested facts that warrant our attention. These
are not accusations against any persons but an attempt to rouse
Christians from their indifference.
little doubt there has been a reduction of doctrinal understanding
over the past fifty years. Whatever the Evangelical movement has
gained in making the Christian religion broader, it has lost by
reducing its doctrinal underpinnings.
is often made that doctrine divides. If there is division is over
the minutia of the Christian life, then the statement is true and
controversy is to be avoided. However, doctrine has the function
of defining and stating the differences between what is biblical
and what is not. Doctrine is nothing more than putting in a rational
and systematic manner what the Word of God teaches on various subjects.
the Bible does speak of the one true God and there are three Persons
in the Godhead: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine
of God simply explains what the Bible teaches about this subject.
The Doctrine of God is a subject worthy of our study if we hope
to know and serve the true God.
speaks much about the doctrine of salvation. At the heart of the
Biblical teaching about salvation is the doctrine of justification
by faith. However, even among those who claim to be Christians,
there appears to be little interest in knowing how a righteous God
can accept an unrighteous person. How is it possible for sinful
man to be in a right relationship with the God Who is both holy
and righteous? The doctrine of justification by faith is the Biblical
answer to that question. However, there are many who are not interested
in studying the doctrine but are content with the mere belief they
are saved without any interest in understanding how this took place.
or even neglect, of doctrinal Christianity has been taking place
for a number of years and the Evangelical churches are paying a
great price. There are several results from this:
there is a great lack of mature Christians in the church. Maturity
is not achieved instantaneously, there is the need of a long term
process to achieve it. We are thankful for practical methods that
will help us attain this objective, but methods can never be a substitute
for the teaching of God's Word itself. Character traits such as
commitment, faithfulness, long-range thinking, discipline, etc.
may not be attractive to one who desires to achieve results instantaneously,
but it is the Biblical method of growth.
it is reflected in the level of Christian living that is displayed
to the world. Studies made by recognized authorities have concluded
that there is no discernable difference between the life styles
of professing Christians and those who make no such claim. The only
difference is that the first group claims to have a personal relationship
with God and believe that they will go to heaven when they die.
It is crushing to read that many of the individuals involved with
the recent financial scandals are professing Christians. The disconnection
between profession and practice is a great stumbling block to many.
Unless Christians have a higher standard of ethical behavior than
the world, we should not be surprised when many do not listen to
what we say.
and in some ways this is the most tragic of all, the lack of maturity
prevents a believer from enjoying the greatest benefits of the Christian
life. A parent is loathe to give valuable things to an immature
child. The reason for this is simple. The immature child lacks the
capacity to appreciate and enjoy the gift. How much do we miss of
enjoying God by our unwillingness to progress in the Christian life?
There have been those who have experienced the reality of this life
here on earth and have left a record of their experiences of fellowship
with God. How much we could learn from them of delighting in God,
of communion with God, and of fellowship with the living God?
some of the practical effects that come from a true understanding
of the doctrine of justification by faith? Let us look at some.
we live in a world where people search desperately for acceptance
and a sense of self-worth. The doctrine of justification assures
me that God accepts me in the person of His Son. What value did
God place on me? He sent His Son to earth to die the death that
I deserved to die.
what is it worth to have a good conscience? When I reflect on my
failures, sins, and mistakes, how easy it is to be discouraged.
But the understanding of the doctrine of justification assures me
of the forgiveness of my sins by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is possible
to have a good conscience. There is a wonderful illustration given
of the value of a good conscience in the Pilgrim's Progress. The
time had arrived when Old Honest had to cross the Jordan River.
In other words, he had come to the time of his death. This was a
very solemn time. However, Old Honest had arranged previously for
Good Conscience to meet him there. The doctrine of justification
by faith assures me that I may have a good conscience when I face
the ultimate crisis of my life.
the doctrine of justification by faith assures me that we have good
news to share with people. Although people often deny they are worthy
of condemnation, in their hearts they know it is true. Frequently
they react in the opposite direction. They are convinced they are
too bad to be saved. But a person is not saved by his own righteousness
but by the righteousness of another person. That Person is Christ
Himself and His righteousness is more than adequate to meet whatever
claims the law of God may make. We have wonderful news to proclaim
to the world!
not allow the precious truths found in the doctrine of justification
by faith slip away from us through neglect. We do not study doctrine
to have a high view of ourselves. The study of the doctrine of justification
by faith should make us thankful that we have been saved. This doctrine
will humble us that we may serve one another.
1. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Preamble,
2. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 4.3 Justification
by Faith and through Grace.
3. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,
4.3 Justification by Faith and through Grace.