by Faith and the Current Religious Scene
The Centrality of Justification by an Imputed
The doctrine of justification by Christ's imputed righteousness
is not simply one doctrine among others. As Luther constantly declared,
it is the basic and chief article of faith with which the church
stands or falls and on which its entire doctrine depends. If anything
in this article is given up, lost or compromised, warned the Reformer
in the Smalcald Articles, "all is lost, and the Pope,
the devil, and all our adversaries will gain the victory."
Again he said, "We cannot emphatically and often enough sharpen
our thinking on this doctrine. We must devote ourselves to it with
the greatest theological diligence and seriousness. . . .No other
article of faith is so threatened by the danger of false teaching."
It can be seen that Luther did not think that the doctrine of imputed
righteousness was only something to be preached to mere Christian
beginners or that it could be forgotten as a mastered accomplishment.
He not only stressed that this truth cannot be learned too well
but that it must occupy the central position in the teaching and
thinking of the church.
If we were to judge Protestantism by whether or not the doctrine
of imputed righteousness is at the center of its thrust, we would
have to conclude that Protestantism scarcely exists today. Not by
any stretch of the imagination is Christ's imputed righteousness
central in present-day thinking or witness. Some will make cursory
mention of it, and even most who do mention it relegate it to something
which is required at the time of Christian initiation. Apparently
it is thought that more mature Christians can get past it and go
on to higher things.
This present state
of affairs in the Protestant movement explains the growing accord
between Rome and the neo-evangelicals. No Roman Catholic dogma has
ever changed; but with the Reformation doctrine of imputed righteousness
removed from the center of the neo-evangelical witness, Rome sees
more reason for affinity than for alarm.
It is not hard to demonstrate that Protestant revivalism, following
in the tradition of Charles Finney, thinks very poorly of the great
Reformation doctrine of justification. The inner experience of being
saved or sanctified is overwhelmingly the center of almost all revivalism.
It has become a kind of Protestant gratia infusa. Neither
can anyone challenge the observation that Pentecostalism, neo-Pentecostalism
and Campus Crusade are entirely devoted to a focus on internal experience.
It is the old Roman Catholic theology of gratia infusa
wrapped up in some evangelical trimmings. For Rome it is a happy
eventuality. Catholics are even being instructed to learn the evangelical
patter so that they can move in with this stream of religious fervor.
Let us now leave these very obvious deviations from sound Protestantism
to examine what we may well expect to be the last fort of the Reformation
heritage — the good, conservative or middle-of-the-road evangelical
Protestantism. This is where the shoe is going to pinch. Most of
us who are interested enough to publish or read this type of material
would like to think that we of all people are the sound evangelicals
who recognize the difference between medieval and Reformation theology.
But let us also submit to the acid test: Is the doctrine of imputed
righteousness really at the center of our faith and witness? It
is not easy to be self-critical, but it is time that we let that
great truth which calls all doctrines into question, call the content
of our own message into question.
We will now observe how the best evangelicals can often fail to
keep the great doctrine of imputed righteousness from being at the
center of their message.
1. Centering on the New Life
In their book on Protestant Christianity, John Dillenberger
and Claude Welch pinpoint the vital difference between the Reformers
(who did believe in the new life of the Spirit) and the sounder
Anabaptists (who did believe justification by faith). "For
the Anabaptists . . . the new life in Christ through the Spirit
rather than justification by faith is the center."—-p.63.
And on this same point, evangelical Protestantism today reflects
the Anabaptist rather than the Reformation focus. Says Paul Tillich
in A History of Christian Thought: "For the kind of
Protestantism which has developed in America is not so much an expression
of the Reformation, but has more to do with the so-called Evangelical
Radicals."—p. 225. "Luther's conflict with the evangelical
radicals is especially important for American Protestants because
the prevailing type of Christianity in America was not produced
by the Reformation directly, but by the indirect effect of the Reformation
through the movement of evangelical radicalism."—-p. 239.
Most evangelical witness tends to lack a central theology of justification.
Its overwhelming focus is on the internal experience of being born
again and saved. There is much truth in it. The need for the new
birth ought to be taught. But when it is not seen in the setting
of the pre-eminence of justification by an imputed righteousness,
there is grave danger that people come to think that salvation is
based on an internal change within their own hearts. Then the focus
is inward instead of outward, on Christian experience instead of
Christ's experience, on a subjective happening instead of a historical
In the popular evangelical message, people are urged to get saved
by inviting Christ to come into their hearts. Being saved is then
identified with having that internal experience of being born again
by the presence of the indwelling Christ.
Aside from the fact that this comes perilously close to the Roman
Catholic principle of salvation by the indwelling presence (as ably
set forth by Cardinal John Henry Newman1), it is a far cry from
the apostolic message of salvation. The apostles did not begin by
proclaiming that their hearers could be saved by having Christ come
into their hearts to produce an internal experience. Their focus
was not an internal happening but an external happening. Christ
lived, died and rose again for the sinner's justification. The apostles
proclaimed an objective, historical reality. Here was Paul's kerygma:
declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was
made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their
children, in that He hath raised up Jesus again. . . Be it known
unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is
preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that
believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not
be justified by the law of Moses." Acts 13:32, 33, 38, 39.
Salvation was said to
be in something which God had already done outside the sinner in
the person of Jesus Christ. As men listened, the Holy Spirit was
present to give them faith. Now the hearers were exhorted to accept
this salvation by faith. "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth
the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised
Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." Rom. 10:9.
Faith does not bring the person of Christ down out of heaven to
come into the believer's heart,2 for "the righteousness
which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart,
Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from
above)" (Rom. 10:6). Rather, faith lifts the believer up to
heaven and places him "in Christ." Then and then alone
is the scripture fulfilled, "If any man be in Christ, he is
a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are
become new." 2 Cor. 5:17.
Rather than the new birth being the result of focusing on the inner
change itself, the very opposite is true. We see this illustrated
in Jesus' lesson to Nicodemus. After telling the proud ruler about
his need of a new birth, Jesus did not lead the convicted sinner
to dwell on his internal experience. He directed Nicodemus' eyes
to that great external event which guaranteed his salvation. "And
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the
Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should
not perish, but have eternal life." John 3:14,15.
2. Centering on the Experience of Sanctification
The Christian experience of sanctification is a most necessary doctrine
of the Christian faith. But when it subordinates justification and
takes the center of attention, it becomes a return route to medieval
piety. This is the greatest single weakness of the holiness-Pentecostal
teaching, and a lot of it has rubbed off on the Protestant movement.
Why does the internal work of sanctification tend to swallow up
justification by faith? We shall offer two reasons:
a. Arminian theology (which was the soil from which
sprang the holiness-Pentecostal movement) greatly weakens the doctrine
of justification by faith. It thinks of justification only in terms
of forgiveness of past sins by virtue of Christ's death. It fails
to see that justification is also the imputation of Christ's life
of perfect obedience to the law — an obedience which gives
to the believer a full and free title to eternal life (Rom. 4:5-7;
5:10, 18, 19). Consequently, final salvation is thought to depend
largely on the active obedience of the believer in his life of sanctification.
b. Sanctification has often been separated from
justification. When the renewing power of the Holy Spirit is separated
from the doctrine of justification, all that is left is a cold,
legal, intellectualized concept. Then there is only a fictitious
"justification" which brings neither the Holy Ghost nor
His transforming power into the life of the church. People profess
salvation while their lives are a positive denial of it.
Then what happens? The preacher looks at the church and thinks,
"These people have been 'saved,' but they certainly need something
else to lift them out of their low spiritual [carnal?] state."
Along comes a "second blessing" or "renewal"
expert who proceeds to say, "What these people need now is
to learn the secret of the deeper life. They have been taught justification
[?], but now they need to be taught the secret of sanctification."
This program is quite palatable to proud human hearts—especially
to responsible people in the church who are supposed to have been
"saved" for years. It would be altogether too humbling
to admit that what is needed is a true, Bible experience of accepting
the gospel, being justified by faith and being truly born again
in consequence of it. It is too hard to confess being among those thieves and robbers who have really tried to climb over the wall
rather than to get into the fold by the one true door (John 10:1).
So instead of submitting to going back and entering the real door
of salvation, men think it much better to get a second blessing,
some baptism of power that will correct their carnal condition.
Being outside of Christ, they expose themselves to a false spirit
and delude themselves that they are filled with the Holy Spirit
because they can do fantastic things like speak in an unknown tongue—unknown
to God as well as to man.
Certainly justification must be distinguished from sanctification.3 We must not transfer the property of one benefit to the other. But it is just as certain that they can never be separated. Union with Christ by saving faith results in justification as a judicial benefit, but it also results in sanctification as a moral benefit. One blessing cannot be enjoyed without the other. They are as related as light and heat. Where there is light, there will be heat.
Sanctification of the Spirit through a life of active obedience, is not optional. God does not justify the sinner in such a way that obedience to the Ten Commandments is optional. Submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not optional. Faith that is unto justification means that the whole life turns from disobedience and submits to the sanctifying authority of Heaven's government. It is impossible to be justified and not have the renewing, transforming gift of the Holy Spirit. Justification
means that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer
and that he stands before God as if he were perfect. God must, therefore,
treat him as a righteous man; and He does this by giving the believer
the gift and infilling of the Spirit. What is needed, therefore, is
not a "second blessing" doctrine to add to justification
but a true justification which will bring every blessing in its train.
3. Centering on Predestination
Calvinism has become synonymous with predestinarianism. While Calvin
did teach predestination, and a double one at that, it was not the
center of his teaching.
moved from faith to an elaboration of predestination as a way
of showing that God is wholly the author of our faith and that
every notion of work or merit must be rejected. . . . Calvin moved
from faith to predestination, not predestination to faith. The
latter . . . was the pattern of most of his successors."—John
Dillenberger & Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity (New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954), pp.34, 35.
As it often happens, people tend to accentuate their controverted
doctrines and harden their position in the midst of controversy.
As the Reformed doctrine of predestination came under fire, Reformed
orthodoxy hardened its position and moved predestination to the
center of its theology.
A by-product of centering on predestination has been the reduction
of Calvinism into the popular "once-saved-always-saved"
theology. In its cruder simplicity, it means that the man who once
accepts Christ will never forfeit eternal life even though he goes
out and commits the most outrageous sins. This is a far cry from
the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Calvin
meant that the elect would persevere in a life of consistent piety,
and if a man flagrantly failed to perservere, it just proved he
was not one of the elect. But the modern mind is seldom disposed
to cope with elaborate theology—perhaps very sensibly it wants
theology reduced to a simple, pragmatic formula. And when Calvinistic
predestination is reduced to that simple formula, it means "once-saved-always-saved."
Aside from the obvious difficulty of doing justice to the fearful
warnings against falling away which are found in the book of Hebrews,
this type of evangelicalism cannot help people keep the great doctrine
of justification at the center of their attention. Impossible! For
if members of the church regard justification as something which
was irreversibly accepted by them way back there on the day they
were "saved," justification is relegated to a thing of
The great Reformer who said that justification must remain the center,
had an insight into the righteousness of faith which enabled him
to keep it central. The Protestant movement today needs to rediscover
that insight. Luther fully appreciated why St. Paul used the present
continuous tense, "Being justified freely by His grace . .
. " Rom. 3:24. With Paul it was not a matter of merely becoming
justified and then going on to other things. (Relegating justification
to a mere Christian initiation and attempting to go on to higher
things was the great heresy which Paul had to meet in Galatia, Colosse,
Corinth and other places.) The believer can only continue in the
same way as he began (Col. 2:6; Gal. 3:1-5). He must continue to
see himself as a sinner who does not fulfill the law, and he must
continue to bring to God a righteousness of that other Man, which
alone fulfills the law. While God does not impute His righteousness
in degrees, nevertheless the believer must always live in the process
of laying hold of it and the posture of receiving it. The Christian
cannot take his election for granted (2 Peter 1:10; 1 Cor. 9:27).
no saint regards and confesses himself to be righteous, but he
always asks and waits to be justified, and because of this he
is reputed as righteous by God who has regard for the humble (Luke
1:48). In this sense, Christ is the King of the Jews, i.e. of
those who confess that they are always beset by sin and who yet
seek to be justified and detest their sins. Hence, 'God is wonderful
in his saints' (PS. 68:35), because he regards as righteous those
who acknowledge and bewail themselves as sinners, but condemns
those who think that they are righteous."—Martin Luther,
Lectures on Romans (Library of Christian Classics), p.113.
The doctrine of "once-saved-always-saved" and a supreme
emphasis on the new-birth experience generally go along together.
What happens then is that people tend to look to their "new
birth" experience for assurance of eternal security. Instead
of finding all their needed security by identifying themselves with
the experience of Christ, they try to find their assurance through
identifying with their own past experience of being "saved."
This is one of the greatest single weaknesses of most evangelical
4. Centering on the Indwelling Presence of Christ
Perhaps the greatest weakness of neo-evangelism is its overwhelming
focus on the indwelling presence of Christ. It is all the more dangerous
because the indwelling of Christ through His Spirit is an important
New Testament doctrine. But the present-day emphasis is a distortion
of New Testament emphasis. It is completely out of proportion. Take
a good concordance (especially one which gives the original Greek
words) and look up how many times the New Testament speaks on the
objective "in Christ" as compared with the subjective
"Christ in you," especially in Paul. The focus is overwhelmingly
on the objective "in Christ."
In the present-day evangelical teaching, there is so much concentration
on Christ dwelling, living, working and obeying inside the heart
of the believer, that the whole Christian message is sunk into a
sentimental, internal mysticism. It is developing into an evangelical
"gratia infusa "—in apocalyptic terminology,
"an image to the beast" (Rev. 13:13, 14).
With the risk of appearing too repetitious, we say again that the
main New Testament emphasis is not on the Christ on the throne of
the heart but on the exalted Christ on the throne at the right hand
of God. It is interesting to see what Old Testament scripture is
quoted or alluded to most often in the New Testament. It is Psalm
110:1: "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at My right hand,
until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool."The remedy for this sentimental subjectivism is to restore the New
Testament doctrine of Christ's intercession at the right hand of
God to its proper place. Ever since this mighty truth was cast down
to the ground by the Babylonish captivity of the church, it is doubtful
whether it has been restored to the overwhelming importance it occupied
in the apostolic church. When the eye of faith sees the power and
efficacy of Christ's intercession of righteousness at the right
hand of God, the church will realize that its greatest power is
not in an inward experience but in a work going on outside of itself
in the throne room of the universe.4
The absence of a central theology on justification by faith and
the concentration on internal experience, are swiftly moving the
Protestant movement into greater and greater harmony with Rome.
Will the popular wave of revivalism succeed in turning the Protestant
movement into "an image to the beast"? In view of the
prophecy of Revelation 13:13,14, we ought to give serious thought
to where things are headed in the bond of union which is developing
between Rome and the neo-evangelicals. The time has surely come
for a "new" Reformation which will restore the truth of
the intercession of Christ's imputed righteousness to its rightful
1 Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification.
2 Christ is present by His Spirit in the Word of faith
(see Rom. 10:8). The person of Christ remains at the right hand
3 One error is to confuse sanctification with justification.
This is the essence of Roman Catholic legalism. The opposite error
is to separate sanctification from justification. This is the essence
of antinomian Protestantism.
4 We recommend Louis Berkof's excellent treatment of
The Intercessory Work of Christ, Systematic Theology (Banner
of Truth Trust), pp. 400A05.