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Our Father's GarmentsA Four-point Summary of Reformation Justification  

We present hereunder a four-point contrast of the basic differences between the Roman and Reformation doctrines of how God justifies a repentant sinner:

The Meritorious Cause in Romanism

1. Justified by God’s work of grace in a man.
2. Justified by faith that has become active by love.
3. Justified by infused or imparted righteousness.
4. Justification means making a man righteous in his own person.

The Meritorious Cause in the Reformation

1. Justified by God’s work of grace in Christ.
Justified by faith in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ on the cross.
3. Justified by imputed righteousness.
4. Justification means that a man is accounted righteous.

Number 1 — Justified by God’s Work of Grace in Christ alone (the "Meritorious" Cause of Justification)

Christian doctrine has two poles:

1. “in Christ” and
2. “Christ in you.”

Or we can express it this way:

1. Christ’s work for us. (His sinless life and atoning death on the cross)
2. Christ’s work in us. (The Holy Spirit's work of convicting us of sin and leading us to repentance towards God and faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross)

In the matter of justification, we must never confuse these two aspects of redemption.

By Number 1 we mean the doing (His sinless life) and dying (His atoning death) of Christ for us. This is the meritorious cause of our acceptance with God.

By Number 2 we mean the work that the Holy Spirit does in the believer’s heart (repentance towards God and faith in the blood of Christ). This is the instrumental means of our acceptance with God.

The Reformers maintained the Pauline position that we are justified solely on the meritorious basis of Number 1 – Christ’s work for us as the meritorious cause of a sinner's acceptance with God.

Number 2 — Justified by Faith (the "Instrumental" Means of Justification)

God’s finished redemptive act at the cross has already made provision for the salvation of all men in the Person of Christ. The empty tomb is the seal to Christ’s perfect atonement for all sin. In Christ the atonement for the sin of all the world has been accomplished (the meritorious or objective basis of acceptance with God). This means that in order to receive the blessing of justification personally, the sinner has only to personally repent of his sins and trust in Christ as his Savior and Lord (the instrumental or subjective basis of acceptance with God).

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Rom. 3:28.

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:20-21

"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Acts 2:36-40

"But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, "and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, "whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. "For Moses truly said to the fathers, 'The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you. 'And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.' Acts 3:18-23


“By faith alone” (sola fide) became the slogan and war cry of the Reformation. By this the Reformers meant that nothing else was required for justification save that a repentant sinner trust only in what God had done for him in Christ on the cross of Calvary. In this context, they saw that when they put their trust in Christ's blood alone God forgives and accepts them as an adopted child of God and an heir of eternal life.

The papists were willing to concede that a man could be justified by faith if that faith were clothed with love. But since love is the fulfilling of the law, the Reformers recognized that the papal view was a veiled attempt to support righteousness by the fulfillment of law. Hence Protestantism insisted on sola fide, for they correctly saw that love and good works of obedience are the fruit in man’s experience of sanctification but not the root of ones acceptance with God in justification. According to Romans 5:1-6, love is the fruit of justification.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Romans 5:1-6

Number 3 — Justified by Imputed Righteousness.

The Reformers merely re-emphasized the clear teaching of Paul, especially as set forth in Romans 4. In this chapter the words translated “accounted,” “reckoned” and “imputed” all come from the same Greek word.

“For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Verse 3.

“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works. …Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.” Verses 5, 6, 9.

“... and [Abraham] being fully persuaded that, what He [God] had promised, He was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.” Verses 21-24.

The word “impute” means that the righteousness by which we are justified is outside of us. Instead of being poured into us, as the Catholics teach, the sinless perfect life of Christ is credited, or accounted, to the believer in Jesus. The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives both the Protestant and Catholic definitions of justification as follows:

justify . . . (Theol.) declare (person) free from the penalty of sin on the ground of Christ’s righteousness or (Rom. Cath.) of the infusion of grace ...”

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent pronounced a curse on anyone who would teach that justification comes “through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.”

There is full assurance and freedom in the truth. Justification on the basis of a righteousness wholly outside of us means that we do not have to look within our own hearts to see a certain amount of infused righteousness. Rather, we go to Christ just as we are, realizing that in our Substitute there is righteousness enough to give us favor and right standing with God.

Number 4 — Justification Means Being Accounted and Declared Righteous.

The Roman Church contended that “justification” means making a man righteous in his own person. The Catholic reasons, “How can God pronounce a man to be righteous in His sight unless he is actually righteous?” He therefore thinks that a man must be born again and transformed before he can have right standing with God. In this system of thought, a man can have no real assurance of justification, for he can never be sure whether the Holy Spirit has made him righteous enough to be accepted of God.

In contrast, the Reformation theology says with Paul, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Rom. 4:5. God justifies sinners, and sinners of all sorts, not on the condition of any preceding righteousness, but on the condition that they personally believe with their whole heart what God has done for them, namely, that He has reconciled and accepted them in the person of their Substitute.

The Reformers pointed out that the words “justify” and “justification” are legal and judicial words, closely related to the idea of trial and judgment (Deut. 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32; 1 Cor. 4:3, 4; Matt. 12:37; Rom. 3:4). The words imply a declaration and pronouncement from the divine court of the believer’s right standing with God. “Justification” in itself does not mean a change in the man, but a declaration of how he appears in God’s sight.

Divine “justification” does not mean to actually make a believer righteous as an empirical reality, but it means to account him as righteous. And God does this for the believing sinner before he has been sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul illustrates this from the experience of Abraham:

“... (as it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before Him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.” Rom. 4:17.

God did not pronounce Abraham a father after Isaac was born, but while Sarah was still barren. By faith Abraham accepted that he was a father because it was so in the Word of God rather than by empirical reality. In the same way, we are to believe when the gospel tells us that we repentant sinners who have called upon the name of Christ as our Savior and Lord have been reckoned righteous in Christ. If we stop to consider what we are, faith staggers as Abraham’s faith would have staggered if he had considered his own dead body and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. Therefore, in justification God “calleth those things which be not as though they were.”

But the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in Him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4:23-25 RSV


Thus the repentant believer is secure only in the merciful reckoning of God. The Lord accounts him as having more moral worth than the angels who have never sinned. But the believer knows that in himself he is not as he appears before God in His exalted Substitute. Indeed, his nature is still sinful, and the nearer he comes to Christ, the more sinful he sees himself to be. This keeps him humble and continually contrite of heart and utterly dependent upon his Substitute in whom he stands wholly righteous, wholly acceptable in the sight of God.