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Protestants in Crisis over Justification by Faith

Chapter 2  — The Reformation Doctrine Under Attack

If justification by faith is the citadel of the Christian faith, we should not be surprised to see that this article of the standing or falling of the church has been the object of the keenest assault.

The attack on the Reformation doctrine has been basically twofold. On the one hand, it is contended that justification is not central to the Christian faith; on the other hand, the forensic nature of justification is called into question.

The Attack on the Centrality of Justification

Paul Tillich's statement that justification by faith does not make sense to modern man is well known. Twentieth-century man does not appear to be as preoccupied with finding a gracious God as sixteenth-century man was. If it is a question of justification, this creature called man seems to be more interested in demanding that God be justified before man for the way He is running the world. The literary output of the church is devoted to apologetics far more than to the gospel. Brave Christians go out into the world to justify God before bold sinners who have presumed to push God off His judgment throne and put Him on trial before their judgment seat.

But even within the church men are asking, "Is the question of justification so important after all?" For example, in his Gifford Lectures of 1956 and 1957, Leonard Hodgson declared that "the phrase 'justification by faith' has outlived its usefulness."1 He recommended that it "had better be dropped from our theological vocabulary."2

About fifty years ago Albert Schweitzer claimed that justification by faith was only a ''minor crater'' in the ''larger crater'' of Pauline theology. Justification is not a main theme in Paul, he said, but a subsidiary doctrine.3 It is surprising where Schweitzer's argument appears these days. James Stewart also opposes the centrality of justification in Pauline theology.4 E. P. Sanders likewise contends that righteousness by faith is not a central theme in Paul. Justification only comes to the fore in Paul, says Sanders, when the apostle is arguing against the Judaizers in Galatians and Romans.5

Anglican theologian John Macquarrie is quick to agree with the Protestant scholars who want to place the whole question of justification in the background. In his Principles of Christian Theology Macquarrie dismisses the doctrine of justification in less than two pages. He calls justification a "notion . . . vastly exaggerated" and "neither indispensable nor specially illuminating."6

The 1963 Helsinki Conference of the World Lutheran Federation seemed embarrassed by the overwhelming importance the Lutheran Confessions attached to the matter of justification. Many scholars are suggesting that while justification may have been of burning importance to sixteenth-century man, it does not have this importance in the twentieth-century. If, therefore, we are to find a truth particularly relevant for modern man, they say we will no longer find it in the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith.

Another argument against the centrality of justification is what we might call the "diffusion" argument. It shows that the Bible uses many "metaphors" or "models" to describe the reality of salvation. There is the domestic model (adoption), the horticultural model (the vine and branches), the pastoral model (the shepherd and sheep), the human-relations model (forgiveness and reconciliation), the biological model (the new birth), the sanctuary model (propitiation) and, of course, the law-court model (justification). "Justification is only one way to say it," they point out, and the law-court model is no more important than any other. The different models are spread out much like a smorgasbord so that people can choose one that appeals to them. This is one of the most effective arguments for removing justification from its place of prominence in Christian teaching. It is an indirect attack on the stance of the Reformation. It does not overtly deny the meaning of justification but appeals for "balance" against the tendency to "exaggeration" by the Reformers.

Another plausible attack on the centrality of justification by faith simply says that the central theme in the Bible is the incarnation, the work of Christ, or His vicarious atonement on the cross. And who would want to deny that the Christ event is central to the biblical witness? What is affirmed in this argument is quite true. But we must question what is denied—that justification by faith is central. At present, however, we are simply seeking to understand these arguments, not to answer them.

The Reformed and Arminian streams of theological thought have always had more difficulty maintaining the centrality of justification than the Lutheran stream has had. In the Reformed system justification is regarded as a static, once-in-a-lifetime act followed by sanctification:

Final Justification and Sanctifaction

In this framework it is almost impossible to keep justification at the center of attention since a past act does not remain the believer's greatest need. Justification becomes like a filling station that is passed but once. On the other hand, the Arminian scheme tends to reduce justification to a provision for past sins only. This is followed by sanctification, which often appears like a higher stage in the soteriological process. Final justification on the day of judgment tends to rest on sanctification. In this, justification is severely subordinated to sanctification:

Past Sins

In contrast to these two positions, Luther and the Lutheran Confessions regard justification as a present continuous need of the believer, who is always a sinner in his own eyes yet always grasping the justifying verdict of God by faith in Christ's righteousness:

Beginning and Ending

When we look at the evangelical movement in general as it nears the end of the twentieth century, we must say that it scarcely has a doctrine of justification by faith at all. Much is said about the new-birth experience, the Spirit-filled life and many different techniques of inner healing, peace and power. But the center of attention is the subjective religious experience of the believer rather than the outside-of-me righteousness of Another. This represents a kind of evangelical Romanism which has grown up within the Protestant movement. If Protestantism stands on the centrality of justification by faith, then Tillich had grounds for saying that the Protestant era is at an end.

The Attack on the Forensic Nature of Justification

In 1970 Nigel Watson wrote this significant comment in an essay entitled "Justification—A New Look":

For 400 years, from Melanchthon to Sanday and Headlam, Protestant scholars were virtually unanimous that the word dikaioun ("justify") means "acquit" or "declare righteous" or "treat as righteous" but not "make righteous", while Catholic scholars maintained with equal unanimity and vigour that the word means not only to declare righteous but to make righteous as well. In the last few years, however, the old confessional landmarks have become more and more out-of-date. In Europe it is becoming widely accepted that divisions on this issue now cut across denominational lines.7

The forensic nature of justification is being compromised and repudiated by Protestant scholars on every hand. Leading the stampede away from this great landmark of the Reformation are prominent Lutheran scholars. They now claim that Luther did not teach forensic justification. The villains who introduced this "legal" doctrine into the church, it is said, were Melanchthon and the authors of the Formula of Concord. Since the Formula of Concord is brilliantly clear on forensic justification, many Lutheran scholars have tried to drive a wedge between Luther and the Formula.

Attacks against forensic justification are not new, of course, but in our day they have become a full-scale offensive within Protestantism. Says Berkouwer:

The so-called forensic, juridical, or declarative character of justification has occasioned a long debate running through the history of the Church. Its opponents have been legion. It is well to remember that many objections to declarative justification are part and parcel with a rejection of the substitutionary suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Terms common to jurisprudence have been used in connection with Christ's death: satisfaction, sufficiency, payment, purchase, ransom, and punishment. And these terms have made men angry.8

Forensic justification has always been caricatured as a cold, external scheme of salvation. Its legal categories of thought have been associated with legalism, or worse yet, with a legal fiction in which God declares a man righteous when he is not righteous at all. In an effort to escape this "cold legalism of forensic justification," men have tried to make justification synonymous with transformation and, in one way or another, to inject the sanctification of the believer into righteousness by faith.

Buchanan has well said that it is almost impossible to invent a new heresy. Every attack on the forensic nature of justification is represented by two men—Osiander and Newman. All arguments against forensic justification seem to echo either Osiander or Newman.9

Osiander. Andreas Osiander was a German pastor who opposed Melanchthon after the death of Luther. His basic thesis was that "God would not commit the injustice of declaring a man to be righteous in whom there is nothing whatever of true righteousness."10 Osiander therefore contended that God must make a man righteous so that He can declare him righteous. He proposed that Christ indwells the believer with His divine righteousness. This is what God sees, and seeing this essential righteousness of Christ in the believer, God pronounces him righteous.

In theology Osiander's principle of justification is called "analytical justification." In this century it has had such advocates as Karl Holl, Vincent Taylor and James Stewart. Holl said that God begins to make the believer righteous. God sees what the believer will eventually become by grace; and because of this foreseen righteousness, said Holl, God justifies the believer.11 James Stewart says that the believer has become righteous in principle. He is not yet perfect, but he is headed in the right direction; and God, seeing this, justifies him.12 Taylor insists that God's verdict of justification must be an assent to a reality within the believer's life.13 These theologians may offer variations on Osiander's theory, but in principle they all advocate a justification based on an analysis of what the believer is or is in process of becoming.

Newman. John Henry Newman of the mid-nineteenth century was a brilliant scholar who desperately tried to make a synthesis between the Protestant and Catholic positions. He admitted that justify in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament means "to declare righteous." But Newman argued that God's word is a potent word which creates what it declares. Newman used the analogy of the creation epic. God said, "'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). So, concluded Newman, when God declares the sinner righteous, that mighty creative word makes him righteous. Justification is therefore a declaring righteous which is also a making righteous.

Whereas Osiander said that God declares righteous as a result of making righteous, Newman said that God makes righteous as a result of declaring righteous. But both roads lead back to Rome because, in both instances, sanctification becomes confounded with justification. Newman earnestly tried to find a way to satisfy both the Protestant and Catholic camps. His synthesis and his history prove one thing that we must never forget. Rome can accept the synthesis of the two positions and still be Rome, but Protestantism cannot accept the synthesis and still be Protestant.

Whereas Osiander's principle is called "analytical" justification, Newman's principle is called "effective" justification. Of the two theories, Newman's is the more seductive, and it has many modern adherents. Hans Kung's thesis on justification is basically a restatement of Newman's theory. Like Newman, he desperately tries to bridge the gulf and make a synthesis between Romanism and Protestantism. Says Kung:

Protestants speak of a declaring just which includes a making just; and Catholics of a making just which supposes a declaring just. Is it not time to stop arguing about imaginary differences?14

Newman's synthesis, "effective" justification, finds many advocates among Lutheran scholars today. If Paul Althaus does not mean the same as Newman, he is playing dangerously when he contends that justification is both a declaring and a making righteous.15 Other Lutherans who echo Newman's theory of "effective" justification are Beck, Ehrlich, Gritsch, Jenson and Rogness.16

In his excellent article on "Sanctification," H. P. Hamann protests the predilection of many scholars for confounding justification with regeneration and in one way or another injecting sanctification into the article of justification. Hamann faults such scholars as W. Dantine, C. H. Dodd, Karl Holl, Ernst Kasemann, H. G. Pohlmann, James Stewart and Vincent Taylor.17

We have pointed out that the Lutheran stream has generally done better than the Reformed stream in maintaining the centrality of justification. But we also want to suggest that Reformed scholars have generally done better in maintaining the forensic nature of justification. We will suggest a reason for this later.

Crowned Law



1 Leonard Hodgson, For Faith and Freedom, 2 Vols. (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1956), 1:108, 110.
2 Ibid.
3 Albert Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New York: Seabury Press, 1968).
4 See James S. Stewart, A Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975).
5 See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp.440, 506. "Book of the Year Award Winner."
6 John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Totowa, N. J.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977).
7 Nigel Watson, "Justification—A New Look," Australian Biblical Review 18 (Oct. 1970): 31-2.
8 G. c. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), pp.89-90.
9 See Present Truth Magazine "Justification by Faith and John Henry Newman."
10 Cited by Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 4 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950-1957), 2:526.
11 Cited by Robert D. Brinsmead, "The Legal and Moral Aspects of Salvation," Part 1, Present Truth Magazine 5, no.4 (July 1976): 25-6.
12 See ibid., p.26.
13 See ibid., p.25.
14 Hans Kong, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964), p. 221.
15 See Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p.235.
16 See W. Beck, "What Does Dikaioo [Justify] Mean?" Christian News, 1 Dec.1975; Rudolf J. Ehrlich, Rome: Opponent or Partner? (London: Lutterworth Press, 1965), pp.47, 49; Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 68; Michael Rogness, Philip Melanchthon: Reformer Without Honor (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1969), p.117.
17 See H. P. Hamann, "Sanctification — A Symbolical, Exegetical, Dogmatical, and Homiletical Study," Lutheran Theological Journal 10 (Dec.1976): 85-96.