Protestants in Crisis over Justification by Faith
Chapter 3 — What Is at Stake?
What is at stake in maintaining the centrality of justification and its forensic character? We answer with Luther, Everything: the purity of the gospel, the remedy for sin, correct theology—theology which is alive, positive, active and powerful. Regardless of what it may be called, whatever is out of harmony with this doctrine in theory, in practice or in spirit is not Christianity. If wrong here, it must be wrong everywhere.
If we fail to preserve the distinction between justification by Christ's substitutionary work for us and sanctification by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit in us, then the proper distinction between law and gospel, between the saving righteousness of the Creator and the responsive righteousness of the creature, is at an end. At stake is all that the Reformation stood for and gained for the church. The Formula of Concord says that what is at stake in keeping this article of justification pure is the glory of Christ and the comfort of troubled consciences.
The Glory of Christ at Stake
We do not insist on a strictly forensic justification because of a strange predilection for legal terminology. Forensic righteousness means that it is a righteousness completely outside the realm of our personal experience. It is not something done by us, to us or in us. Forensic means that it points away from us to the work of Jesus Christ alone. The righteousness that the poor sinner can successfully plead before the judgment tribunal of God is nothing but the holy obedience and bitter suffering of our Substitute and Representative. When we say justification is strictly forensic, we are saying that we are accepted before God's judgment seat as righteous by the righteousness of Christ—His doing and dying—plus nothing.
Forensic justification means sola fide—faith alone in what Christ has done for us. This alone reconciles us to the Father. Forensic justification means sola fide, and sola fide means solo Christo.
Berkouwer is right when he says:
The forensic justification of the Formula of Concord is not a slip into the net of a scholastic, intellectual order of salvation; it is the end result of a desire to keep the sola fide and keep it pure. . . . This was the uniting truth of the sixteenth century.
It is the preaching of grace, sheer, unalloyed, unmerited grace.
Forensic justification has to do with what is extra nos, with the imputation of what Christ has done on our behalf. This was, indeed, the original disposition of the Reformation.
Thus, in the forensic idea of justification the sola fide-sola gratia finds its purest incarnation. The doctrine of forensic justification embodies the gracious act of God in Christ Jesus, whom man can take to himself in faith alone.1
In this light we can see why the Reformers declared that justification is the central article of the Christian faith. It is central because when we talk about the righteousness of faith, we are talking about the work of Christ alone. The incarnation and atonement of Christ are not one thing and justification by faith another thing. No one saw more clearly than Luther that the work of Christ for us and justification by faith are one. Justification by faith expresses how the sinner stands in a saving relationship to God when he stakes his whole existence on the infinite, awesome deeds of the incarnate God. Forensic justification is everything. It points to that which supports the poor sinner in life and in death as well as to that which supports the entire universe.
Of course, repentance, regeneration and a life of new obedience have their place. It is even proper to say that if a man remains without these things, he will not be saved. But in the matter of presenting a righteousness that can stand before God in judgment and reconcile us to the Father, regeneration and the inward graces of the Holy Spirit's work have no place.
In this matter of justification—acceptance before the throne of God's judgment—nothing must ride in the royal carriage beside the righteousness of Christ freely imputed. For the glory of Christ we must therefore insist on a righteousness distinct from everything in man—in short, on a righteousness which is strictly forensic. An attempt to take the renewing work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart and include that in our justification before God is to commit blasphemy. It tries to make an antichrist out of the Holy Spirit. This corruption of the gospel is worse than the sin of crass legalism. It presumes to use God's gifts to rob Him of His glory. An overt legalism is not as damnable as this, for what could be worse than using God's choicest gift to tarnish the glory that belongs to Calvary alone?
The Comfort of Troubled Consciences at Stake
The other side of the issue is the comfort of troubled consciences. If the renewal of life which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the believer is included in the righteousness which he must plead before God in judgment, then the believer can never stand before God with an easy conscience. For who could look at his own Christian experience and be satisfied that he loves, prays and lives as unselfishly as strict and perfect justice demands? When the basis for our justification is not kept distinct from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, we confuse our acceptance with our spiritual attainment. We fall from salvation by grace to the devilish counterfeit of salvation by character. To say that the character is by God's grace does not mitigate the error. Rather, it compounds the error. It uses the Holy Spirit to deny the all-sufficiency of the merits of what Christ has done and suffered for us. Therefore, in order that troubled consciences may have full assurance of faith and boldness to enter the favor of God's presence, nothing of the earthly human experience of the believer must be mingled with the righteousness of faith.
This insistence that renewal and sanctification must be excluded from the article of justification is not done for the purpose of devaluating the necessity of a holy life. The testimony of the apostles at this point is decisively clear. If we are to live a holy life, we must first have a good conscience by knowing that we are accepted of the Father. By injecting sanctification into the article of righteousness by faith before God, false teachers disturb the consciences of believers and thus poison the springs of holy living. Good works can only spring from a good conscience. And a good conscience comes only by resting on that "alien" righteousness which has already satisfied divine justice.
1 G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, pp.55, 89, 91. In this section of his book Berkouwer has, in our judgment, done his most brilliant piece of writing.