A 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
The Meritorious Cause in the Reformation
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
Or we can express it this way:
1. Christ’s work for us. (His sinless life and atoning death 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).
“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.
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.