The doctrine of justification today has been largely forgotten, or even despised, in the evangelical world. However, if the Protestant Reformers were right in asserting that justification is the entrance into the kingdom of God, then the recovery of this doctrine is absolutely necessary for preaching, evangelism, ethics, good works, assurance, and, in fact, all piety towards God and neighbors. This is perhaps an incredibly bold claim in our pluralistic world, but the exclusivity of the Gospel is to be safeguarded if the church is to see the world come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the only name by which we might be saved. What exactly is justification? Question 70 in the Westminster Larger Catechism answers this question in this way: “Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.” To put it differently, justification is the legal and forensic declaration that a sinner is righteous only on account of Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection. This paper will thus argue that the heart of the Christian Gospel is the doctrine of justification. I will first consider the importance of justification in Martin Luther’s theology and several proceeding theologians. Second, I will examine the relationship between justification and original sin, imputation, faith, and grace to further develop a more robust understanding of justification. Then, thirdly, I will respond several objections and opposing views, especially the New Perspective on Paul.
One may not need to search hard to see the centrality of justification in the thoughts of the Reformers, as well as theologians after them. In the 16th Century, the Reformers deemed the doctrine of justification as the chief article by which man may be reconciled to God. The question that they were primarily wrestling with was this: “How can a wrath deserving sinner have a right standing before a holy God, who does not tolerate sin?” This was the question that plagued the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. For Luther, there are really only two legitimate options to obtaining a right standing before God. The first is to perfectly obey the demands of the Law. The second is to rely on the work of another; namely, the perfect law-keeping merits of Christ in one’s place. After studying the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he concluded, “For we hold, recognize and affirm, we conclude from what is said that a man is justified, reckoned righteous before God, whether Greek or Jew, by faith, apart from works of the law, without the help and necessity of the works of the law.” The doctrine of justification, in Luther’s theology, is the Gospel! Likewise, we also find similar assertions from Calvin, a second generation reformer. The doctrine of justification is, according to Calvin, “the main hinge on which religion turns.” The same may be said of those who have followed in the footsteps of the Reformers. J.I. Packer, a modern reformer in his own right, has famously said, “For the doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas. It bears a whole world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of God the Saviour.”
Before we proceed to consider the contents of the doctrine, let us first consider the way the Reformers understood sin and its consequential outworking. The doctrine of sin was hugely important for them. Centuries after, Reformed theologians have all affirmed this notion. Herman Bavinck, being one of them, said, “The doctrine of original sin is one of the weightiest and most difficult subjects in all of Christian theology.” The Reformers maintained, with St. Augustine, that Adam’s sin was imputed, or reckon, to all his progenies. As a result, all are condemned for the sin of one man as the Apostle Paul teaches us in Romans. In other words, as Berkhof explains, “Adam sinned not only as the father of the human race, but also as the representative head of all his descendants; and therefore the guilt of his sin is placed to their account, so that they are all liable to the punishment of death.” On the contrary, those who embrace the error Pelagianism, teach that man was not represented by Adam on an ontological sense, but only as a reprehensible illustration. The denial of original sin entails massive consequences in relations to one’s justification. The need to flesh out the entire controversy between St. Augustine and the English monk, Pelagius, is here unnecessary. So, we shall only note several main articles that affect the way justification is understood: (1) Pelagius, with his contention with St. Augustine, denied that sin was not passed to his descendants; (2) Adam’s sin was only a bad moral example; and (3) the merit of justification is obtainable by one’s good works.
With original sin as the backdrop to man’s condition in the courtroom of God, the Reformers saw a guilty verdict against humanity at the forefront. Of course this meant that man, in the end, is unable to save himself because of the sin nature that he has inherited in Adam. It has so corrupted him that even his will, as Calvin puts it, “…cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto; for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace.” In Romans 4:5, Paul tells us that God “justifies the ungodly.” How can this be? Here, we encounter one of the cries of the Reformation, sola gratia, or grace alone. What they meant by this was that salvation must be only credited to God’s grace, not to any work that man performs. The Reformers argued that man must wholly be dependent on the grace of God, as Augustine proposed. They saw the need for God’s grace if man is to be saved from the impending judgment. It is the sole initiation of God alone that sinners can be justified; his grace is the origin of man’s justification. According to later Reformed theology, which builds from the theology of the Reformers, the grace that God bestows to man came in a covenantal construction, which they called the “covenant of grace.” In the covenant of grace, according the Westminster Larger Catechism, “…He (God) freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ.” We see here that the confession tells us that life and salvation are the benefits from God’s grace. Furthermore, it tells us that it is by Jesus Christ that we attain such benefits. “…Only Christ’s sacrifice could make satisfaction for our sins,” as Edmund Clowney correctly observes, “so, too, only Christ’s obedience can merit eternal life (Rom. 6:23).” Clowney reminds us that it is only Christ’s merit and atonement that we can have both our sins forgiven and eternal life to come. This takes us to the next logical question: “What is the nature of how these benefits are given?”
Here, we move to the center of the doctrine justification; namely, the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness on sin stricken, guilty sinners. If the heart of the Gospel is the doctrine of justification, as I am arguing, then the doctrine of imputation is the heart of the doctrine of justification. What is meant by imputation? The Reformers often appealed to 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” to demonstrate this doctrine. Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith explains this divine transaction: “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice, and rich grace of God, might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” Notice that the confession mentions the “exact justice” and “rich grace of God” with relations to what has taken place. It is God’s chief purpose that his justice and grace be displayed our justification in Christ. Moreover, the confession tells us that the punishment that our sins have merited was paid by Christ for us, and the righteousness that he merited, in return, gets credited to us.
Although there is only a twofold imputation found in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Nevertheless, B.B. Warfield notes of a “threefold doctrine of imputation” found in Scripture. Let us consider the threefold imputation that Warfield spoke of: (1) the imputation of Adam’s sin onto humanity, (2) the imputation of our sins onto Christ, and (3) the imputation of Christ’s righteousness onto sinners. We began by surveying original sin because the repercussions for denying it are deadly. We noted that Adam’s sin was counted in our account (original sin), if we deny this we cannot partake on the two imputations above mentioned because the execution is the same. In other words, if deny cry out unfairness to original sin, we must logically say the same with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and our sins imputed to him, as found in 2 Corinthians 5:21. If it is not already clear, Warfield clarifies, “In the proper understanding of the conception, it is important to bear in mind that the divine act called “imputation” is in itself precisely the same in each of the three great transactions into which it enters as a constituent part.” What follows is that if God cannot reckon Adam’s sin to us, then it is impossible to reason that God can give us the righteousness that Christ merited for us and, furthermore, God cannot have “made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21a). Now that we have established the source of justification, let us turn to the instrument by which sinners received this justification we have been speaking of.
With the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on faith and merits as the instruments by which sinners are justified, the Reformers came to a different conclusion. They saw from Scripture that sinners are justified sola fide, or by faith alone. This is yet another crucial element in the Protestant Reformation, which today has turned into a mere slogan without substance in many Protestant churches. Yet in the time of the Reformation, it was of supreme importance. “Justification by faith alone” is well-known, but why is it by faith alone? What of faith that makes it the only instrument by which we are declared righteous? It is an open hand that receives all the benefits that Christ merited for us, responded the Reformers. Faith is the only instrument by which sinners can receive the righteousness that Christ earned for us. Furthermore, it is the only instrument by which our sins are regarded stricken in Christ. In other words, the imputation transaction above is effective only through faith, nothing else. Our works do not merit anything good in the courtroom of God, only Christ’s perfect work can we appear blameless on judgment day. We are saved by works, Christ’s perfect work.
There have been those in opposition to the Reformed doctrine of justification from its conception; from the Judaizers and antinomians in Paul’s day to the Roman Catholic Church in the time of the Protestant Reformation. Many may be surprised to hear that the Roman Catholic Church unmistakably understood what the Reformers were saying, and they condemned it. In the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church pronounced judgment against the Protestant churches when they said, “If anyone says people are justified either solely by the attribution of Christ’s justice, or by the forgiveness of sins alone, to the exclusion of the grace and charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit and abides in them…let him be anathema.” Furthermore, Trent declared, “If anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but in the divine mercy, which pardons sins because of Christ; or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema.”
Today, one of opposition that has been gaining ground, even in some Reformed circles, is the so-called New Perspective on Paul. A lengthy exposition of this perspective is here unnecessary, so we will only briefly examine the position, and then present a Reformed critique. Fesko informs us that this new interpretation of justification finds its origin with Krister Stendahl, who argued that scholars “were reading him (Paul), not in the light of his immediate first-century context, but through the lens of Martin Luther.” But it was in E.P. Sanders’ famous work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which the New Perspective began to take shape. Sanders’ main contribution was his shift from the soteriological concerns of the Reformation i.e., how one is saved, to an ecclesiological one i.e., the recognition of who is in the church. “The query, ‘What can I do to be saved?’ is one which,” according to Sanders, “is not prominent in the (Rabbinic) literature.” As Fesko notes, “Sanders researched the literature of the second temple and concluded that Judaism was not a works-righteousness-based religion but one of grace, which he termed ‘covenantal nomism’: ‘The view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.’” What then is the problem with Judaism? According to Sanders, “…it is not Christianity.”
James Dunn, following Sanders, mainly agreed with Sander’s concern, however, he contended that the “covenant nomism” that Sanders spoke of is not antithetical to Paul’s theology. In doing so, Dunn was forced to rework Sanders original thesis. He maintained that “covenant nomism” of the Jews “…functioned as badges of covenant membership.” They were, for Dunn, “identity markers” that identified the Jews as God’s people. Now, according to Dunn, after Christ has come, the new badge is faith in Christ, rather than circumcision, food laws, the Sabbath, etc. This brings us the most prominent proponent of the New Perspective, N. T. Wright.
Wright for the most part, agrees with Sanders and Dunn’s assessment of Paul’s theology. Fesko rightly points out that “Wright believes that the Jews saw their entrance into the covenant on the basis of God’s grace and their obedience to the Torah was merely response to the divine initiative, not an attempt to merit entrance into the covenant.” Hence, Wright is essentially echoing Sanders and Dunn by appealing to Judaism as religion of grace, not works. It is important to note here that the New Perspective has radically changed the traditional understanding of Paul’s usage of “works of the law” and “righteousness.” What Wright proposes, as well as many of those who hold to the New Perspective, is that “works of the law” is nothing more than the “identity markers” that Dunn previously spoke of. “The righteousness of God,” for Wright, according to Fesko, “then, is primarily a demonstration of his covenantal faithfulness.” Thus, Wright affirms the notion that justification is more about being identified with the church, rather than salvation. If justification is about the society of the church, then there is no need for the “righteous imputation of Christ.” This denial, of course, is one of the primary reasons why Reformation theology is so concerned about this movement. The New Perspective essentially rips out the heart of the Gospel, as the Reformers understood it. Justification, according to Wright, is not an “alien righteousness,” as Luther claimed, that is credited to us, rather it is the declaration that we are part of the covenantal people of God. So, Wright asserts that at the eschaton people will be judged according, to what Piper says, “…the obedience of our lives that is produced by the Holy Spirit through faith.” This is contrary to the way the Reformers understood the doctrine of justification. In fact, it is a return to the Roman Catholic position.
Although, the Reformers would agree to a certain extent of taking into account the second temple Judaism literature of Paul’s day, as Sanders, Dunn, and Wright have done, however, they are not the final authority for interpreting Paul. Fesko rightly points out that J. Gresham Machen observed that “…Paul seeks testimonies to the universal sinfulness of man, he looks not to contemporary Judaism, but to the Old Testament. At this point, as elsewhere, Paulinism is based not upon later developments but upon the religion of the Prophets and the Psalms.” What this means for us here is that Paul could not have derived his theology from second-temple Judaism because he is primarily dealing with the Old Testament Scripture. There is, as Fesko brilliantly observes, a major problem with the New Perspective’s claim that second-temple Judaism has rightly interpreted the Old Testament. Fesko puts it this way, “If the NT redefined Israel’s expectation, then first-century Judaism has correctly interpreted the OT, but Christ and the apostles have redefined it. In other words, Christ and the apostles correct the view of the OT. Or first century Judaism has misinterpreted the OT, and it was first-century opinion that required correction.” This dilemma, in my opinion, is a huge stumbling block that cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, it seems rather odd that the New Perspective proponents are so eager to dismiss the Reformers’ interaction with medieval Catholicism as somewhat irrelevant. Yet, it is apparent that the New Perspective is noticeably similar to that of medieval Catholic soteriology. Even though Wright’s proposal that justification in the eschaton is purely by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, it seems to imply justification by our works rather than Christ’s work. If we speak of our final justification based on the Spirit wrought obedience of the saints, it undermines the gravity of sin and God’s justice. How much work is acceptable before God can say, “Not guilty”? The reality is that God does not tolerate sin! In the final analysis, the New Perspective fails to account for this major chasm between our imperfect righteousness, even as believers, and the perfect judgment of God. To say the least, Roman Catholicism has developed a system of “purgatory” to relieve their inconsistency. But it seems the New Perspective is deficient to explain and harmonize these ideas.
In conclusion, if we do away with the doctrine of justification as the Reformers understood it, we do away with the Gospel itself. What is the good news in knowing that, in the end, we are judged according to our obedience, even if they are Spirit wrought? The good news of the gospel is that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves; Christ obeyed the demands of God’s perfect law and he took the punishment that we deserve to present us as faultless before the Father. By faith alone, we receive what God freely gives in Christ.
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