On Justification: The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness by Faith

This post looks at the doctrine of justification in five parts: 1) Protestant Doctrinal Statements; 2) Key Terms Defined; 3) Biblical and Theological Summary; 4) Conclusion; and 5) Application.

Protestant Doctrinal Statements

Following are four statements on justification from various Protestant sources:

On the contrary, justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.XI.II, ed. John T. McNeill.

Q: What is justification? A: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Question #33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647)

Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.

2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), XI.I.

Justification may be defined as that legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is not an act or process of renewal, such as regeneration, conversion, and sanctification, and does not affect the condition but the state of the sinner.

Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine (MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 2002), 256-257.

Key Terms Defined

Let me briefly define a couple important terms that show up in the above doctrinal statements. These terms represent different views on justification.

Infuse(d): The view that Christ’s righteousness becomes inherent within us through baptism, and may therefore be called our righteousness which must be maintained and may be lost and regained; made righteous, not merely declared or counted as righteous. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and at the Council of Trent:

Justification is not only the remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1995), #1989.

Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.’*

Ibid., #1446.

Thus, neither is our own justice established as our own as from ourselves; nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated: for that justice which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the justice) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ.

The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1563), “Decree on Justification”. Ch. XVI.

Impute(d): This term means to credit or account something to someone. This is the Protestant view that Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account, and therefore God declares us righteous, not for our own righteousness or anything within us, but only and wholly for Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is credited to us, not through baptism, but by faith.

Biblical & Theological Summary

First, justification is a forensic or legal declaration. The justification that we have from God consists of a gracious forgiving of sin and a positive pronouncement of righteousness. How can this be? It is by imputation. Whereas our sins were imputed or credited to Jesus, resulting in our Lord taking the guilt, shame, and judgment of God upon Himself, so His righteousness (His sinless perfection) is imputed or credited to us. It is substitutionary, such as we find in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Christ did not have our sins infused into Him, in which case He would have become sinful and corrupt in nature. Rather, our sins were credited to His account, He taking our place and punishment. Likewise, we in turn do not have the righteousness of Christ infused within us, but credited to our account. This legal concept of justification is emphatically present in Romans 8:31-34:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.

The presence of accusers, signified by the terms “charge” and “condemns,” as well as the concept of a verdict, signified by “God is for us” and “God is the one who justifies,” clearly point to a law-court scenario. It is God’s court that we are in, Satan and His subjects are our accusers, and Christ is our representative. Paul here teaches that Christ’s death silences all accusations, and this is further validated by His resurrection, which is the demonstration that His life and sacrifice satisfied the just demands of God’s Law, taking away its condemnation (cf. Rom. 4:25). We are, on the basis of Christ’s life and substitutionary sacrifice, pronounced to be clear of all transgressions of the Law. We are justified — pronounced to be in right standing before God!

Second, the sole instrumental cause of justification is faith. Over and over again we see that justification is by faith (e.g. Rom. 1:16-17; 3:19-26; Gal. 2:16; 3:6-9ff). When a jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, their response was simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:30-31). Jesus, in whom we are to place our trust, said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (Jn. 5:24; cf. 3:16-18, 36). Now, this does not mean that obedience or good works are optional in the Christian life. The Bible teaches us that good works are a fruit of our salvation, for we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:8-10). The faith that justifies is a living faith, a faith that works through love (Gal. 5:6).

So then, how are we to understand James 2:24, which says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” This is, indeed, a verse often cited by Roman Catholics in support of their view and in rebuttal to the Protestant view. While a thorough analysis of the surrounding context of this verse will not be undertaken at this time, I will supply a brief overview of the specific situation, and demonstrate that James does not argue against the Protestant view that justification is by faith alone.

Now, it is important to understand the context of James 2:24. A major theme of the book of James is that of obedience to the word of God (the gospel). This is evidenced, for example, in 1:21 -27, where he says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (v. 22). And the immediate context in which 2:24 is found has to do with the evidences of genuine, saving faith. This is made explicit in vv. 14-17.

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James is calling out those who have a “said faith,” a mere profession of faith. Of course, anyone can claim to have faith in the gospel, but this does not mean they genuinely believe the gospel. This kind of faith is a dead faith — it’s not living, it’s not active. To put it in contemporary terms, James is arguing against what is commonly called “easy believism”. In verse 18 James specifically brings out this contrast: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” How do you show someone you have faith without any action? You can’t! This is the heart of James’ argument: true, genuine, saving faith will consist of outward evidences. So, whereas the apostle Paul focuses on right standing before God, James focuses on the nature of saving faith. Therefore, as Reformed Christians say, “Justification is by faith alone, but it is not a faith that is alone.”

Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.

2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, XI.II.

Finally, justification cannot be lost. Justification can neither increase nor decrease, which also means it cannot be lost. Why? Because the righteousness that has been imputed to us is that perfect and indelible righteousness of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our righteousness is grounded in the perfect, finished, and effectual work of Jesus Christ. As to the biblical evidence for this final point, let us look again to Romans 8.

The two “bookends” of Chapter 8 consist of the comforting and glorious promises that “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus….’” (v. 1a) and nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 39b). The justification that we have (see again vv. 31-34) is a fixed reality, as sure as the word of the one who justified us – God Himself. If this is not enough to convince you, let us also give brief consideration to the “golden chain of redemption” in vv. 29-30. The text reads:

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

In other words, those whom God knew in a special, covenantal way from all eternity – the elect – He predestined to become conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. This decree of God is a sure thing, and it cannot be thwarted. The ones that He predestined to this conformity to Christ, He did, in the space of time, effectually call through the gospel (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14), and those whom He called He did justify (on the basis of Christ through faith, as we have already seen), and those whom He justified He did glorify (this rounds the discussion back to where it began – conformity to the Son of God). Now, why is the past tense of glorify used? Obviously, we have not yet been glorified, not until the return of Christ (e.g. Col. 3:4). The reason the past tense is used is because it is a sure or guaranteed thing for those who have been predestined. The glorification of God’s people is as sure as the glorification of Jesus Christ, for He is our representative, our forerunner, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2; cf. Rom. 5:17; Col. 3:3-4; 1 Cor. 15:20-23; Eph. 1:13-14). If, therefore, our glorification is a sure thing, and these salvific blessings are linked together with an unbreakable bond, then justification cannot be lost. What is more, God is the one doing all these things. It is God who predestines, God who calls, God who justifies, and God who glorifies. We are passive recipients of this amazing grace. Therefore, to teach that justification is a thing that can be lost, is to contradict Paul’s argument and bring into question God’s power to accomplish that which He has purposed.

Conclusion

Justification, according to the Protestant perspective – indeed, according to the Bible – is a forensic pronouncement over the sinner as being righteous, not on the basis of anything he has done, but according to the free grace of God on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, received through faith. Justification is a one-time act of God, whereas sanctification is progressive; the two must remain distinct from each other. The failure of the Roman Catholic Church to keep these two salvific realities distinct is what leads them to view justification as something that is inward, and a process that can be increased, decreased, and even lost. In short, it leads them to view justification as consisting not merely of the grace of God, but of the merits of man. Louis Berkhof supplies a helpful summary on the distinctions of justification and sanctification:

Justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to all the rights of a child of God, including an eternal inheritance. Sanctification removes the pollution of sin and renews the sinner in conformity with the image of God.

Justification takes place outside of the sinner in the tribunal of God, though it is appropriated by faith. Sanctification takes place in the inner life of man and gradually affects his whole being.

Justification takes place once for all: it is not repeated, nor is it a process; it is complete at once and for all time. Sanctification, on the other hand, is a continuous process which is not completed in the present life.

While both are fruits of the merits of Christ, the work of justification is ascribed more particularly to the Father, and that of sanctification to the Holy Spirit.

Manual of Christian Doctrine, 257.

Now, it is interesting that Catholics often accuse the Protestant view of justification as leading to, or at least allowing for, licentious/loose/immoral living. In other words, since we’re merely credited with Christ’s righteousness, rather than infused with righteousness, then we can live as we please, yet always maintain that forensic righteousness. This, however, is a gross misrepresentation. First of all, this neglects to take into account that Protestants certainly believe in the regenerating work of the Spirit in the believer, and therefore a justified person is someone who has a heart and will that truly seeks to please God in holiness and righteousness, for God is at work in Him (Phil. 2:12-13).** Further, this is the very objection that Paul hypothetically brings up in Romans 6, right after discussing the nature and means of justification (Chs. 3-5). Romans 6:1 says, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Is this not, in essence, what Roman Catholics think we are basically asserting with our doctrine of justification? Indeed, it is! Then does that not serve to further validate our perspective on justification? Indeed, it does! So why are we not to continue to live in sin? Because we have been united to Christ in His death and resurrection, which baptism signifies; and therefore we are to live as those who are dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (vv. 2-11). In short, because God has made us new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

Application

Let us briefly consider now a few points of application with regard to this doctrine of
justification by faith alone. The biblical doctrine of justification…

  1. guards us against self-righteousness (Rom. 4:5; Gal. 6:14-15). Since justification is all of God’s grace, and appropriated simply by faith in the gospel, we need not strive to achieve a righteousness of our own, a righteousness that would never come close to justifying us before the holy God.
  2. assures us that we possess eternal life now, awaiting only its final realization/culmination (Rom. 8:29-30; Tit. 3:7).
  3. brings great comfort to the believer when he/she sins, knowing that those who are in Christ, who have been justified, are never to come under the condemnation of God; for Christ has already borne it (Rom. 5:1, 8-10; 8:1); and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:31-39). Our repentance, rather than re-introducing us to the grace of justification, evinces our justification and that God is at work in us.
  4. gives us a firm foundation and motivation for living a godly life; for our works are borne out in the light of our identity in Christ, and of His finished work on our behalf (Rom. 6:1-23; 1 Jn. 3:2-3).
  5. is a cause for rejoicing in God (Rom. 5:11).

* The quote, “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace,” is supposed to be a reference to Tertullian in On Repentance. The quote comes directly from The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. This is an interpretative statement of Tertullian’s writing. I point this out because I do not think the Roman Catholic Church has accurately summarized Tertullian on this. The place where Tertullian refers to a shipwrecked person clinging to a plank is in the context of repentance unto life, prior to addressing baptism. Tertullian does not, at least here, speak of the loss of the grace of justification which must be restored through repentance (or penance, which is not exactly the same thing as repentance). While Tertullian does speak of those who return to continual sin after repentance, he refers to them as “hypocrites, whose friendship with the devil is indivisible, [and] whose repentance [is] never faithful.” His words are reminiscent of 2 Corinthians 7:10: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” While Trent uses the language of Tertullian, it does so in the context of its own tradition, not Tertullian himself.

** Philippians 2:12-13 reads, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Some Christians struggle with v. 12, as they think it seems to teach a works-based salvation. Unfortunately, some who rightly recognize that the Bible does not teach a works-based salvation, often gloss over v. 12 and just point out how v. 13 speaks of God working in us, as if that somehow cancels out the apparent works-based aspect of v. 12. However, the careful reader will note that Paul says “work out your salvation,” not “work for your salvation”. There is a major difference between the two. In the former, salvation is already had, and one is therefore encouraged to live a life that accords with it, just as Paul says in 1:27, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ….” In the latter, salvation is not had until obtained by works. In other words, Paul is saying, “Because God has so worked in you, and continues to work in you, do the works that are in accord with this great and glorious salvation of yours. Rather than be apathetic, work!”