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Justification: The Article of the Reformation
William C. Robinson — An address delivered at Columbia Theological Seminary on October 24, 1975, by Dr. William C. Robinson, Professor Emeritus.

Editorial Note: Dr. Robinson was a teacher at Columbia Theological Seminary for over forty years. Recently Eerdman's published his excellent little book entitled The Reformation: A Rediscovery of Grace. We take this opportunity to urge the reader to get this outstanding book if he has not already obtained it. It has the very rare gift of being scholarly and incisive on the one hand and very readable and inspirational on the other. It stresses the unity in all streams of Reformation thought and the common heritage held in the best of the Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and other evangelical branches of the church. The sections on Word and Spirit are a reading must.

Dr. Robinson sent us a copy of his recent address at CTS, giving us permission to publish it. We hope it will prompt many of our readers to obtain his above-named book.


Justification, the cardinal principle of the Reformation, is the heart of the Reformed or Presbyterian faith as truly as it is of the evangelical or Lutheran doctrine. For Calvin, justification is the principal hinge by which religion is supported. In the third book of his Institutes, Calvin devotes one chapter to the illumination of the Spirit, the following chapter to faith, eight chapters to the life of faith, then eight to justification by faith, one to liberty of conscience, another to prayer, and all these before he devotes three chapters to predestination. The Canons of Dort were a good answer to the liberalism then sweeping the Netherlands. But when these are distilled into "the five points of Calvinism" in the TULIP acrostic — that is, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saint — and then taken out of context, they can lead to erroneous inferences and focus the Reformed faith upon the Augustinian element in Calvin to the neglect of the Lutheran insight.

After all, Calvin died half a century before the Synod of Dort, but he was a disciple of Luther and a patriarch of the Reformation. This was especially true in his stress on the forgiveness of sins and justification by the mercy of God on the ground of the righteousness of God wrought by the doing and dying of Jesus Christ in our stead. Accordingly, we claim the great struggle which monk Martin made to win a gracious God as a true part of the heritage of those Reformed by the Word of God.

Our whole history shows that we need Luther to balance Augustine, justification to meliorate predestination, the forgiveness of sins to soften TULIP, and Christ our righteousness to rejoice our hearts when we contemplate God in His majesty, the King in His beauty. We need a theology that is Christocentric as well as Theocentric — that is, God who has given Himself for us and to us in Christ. The sovereign God is the God of biblical revelation, the God of grace, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — the Christ who promises, "Him who comes to me I will in no wise cast out."

Christ Is Our Righteousness

In the first Reformation tract ever penned for the English, Luther's colleague, Johann von Bugenhagen, declared that our one doctrine is, Christ is our righteousness. This represents the fruit of Luther's agonizing struggle to find a gracious God. As a young student Martin vowed to become a monk, for he feared that only thus could he do enough to make God gracious to him, the sinner. He observed the rules of his order with a strictness that won for his monastery high acclaim. He went to confession for hours at a time. He faithfully partook of the seven sacraments of the medieval church. He sought to climb to heaven on her three ladders of mystical piety, scholastic theology and practical devotion. But try as he could, Luther found no assurance in himself that his heart was pure enough to merit God's acceptance. Sin beset him behind and before. With Paul he cried, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?"

Then the Holy Spirit opened to Luther the meaning of Romans 1:16, 17 so that he was enabled to see that what he could not do for himself, that Christ had done for him. He could never stand before God on the basis of anything wrought in him, but only on that which had been done for him in Jesus' keeping the law perfectly as our Representative and His bearing our sins in His own body on the tree as our Substitute. Since Christ is God the Son, this work of His, accomplished in His incarnate life and sacrificial death, is the righteousness of God provided for and offered to sinners. Luther on Romans 4:24 expresses it thus: "Christ's death not only signifies, but also accomplishes the remission of sins as a most sufficient satisfaction." And "whoever believes in Him has rendered satisfaction through Christ alone" (Luther on John 3:16). For in the whole gospel nothing else does Christ do but take us out of ourselves and put us under His wings "that we may trust wholly in His satisfaction and merit." As chicks are covered under the wings of the hen, so we should shroud ourselves and our sin under the covering of the flesh of Christ, who is our pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.

Luther writes:
 

    Whence, then, is our defense? Nowhere save from Christ and in Christ. For if there shall come some reproof, against the heart which believes in Christ, testifying against him for some evil deed, then it turns away from itself, and turns to Christ (ad Christum) and says: But He made satisfaction. He is the Righteous One. This is my defense. He died for me. He made His righteousness to be mine, and made my sins to be His own. Because if He made my sin His own, then I can have it now no longer, and I am free. If, moreover, He has made His righteousness mine, I am righteous with the same righteousness as He is. But my sin cannot swallow Him up, but is swallowed up in the infinite abyss of His righteousness since He is God, blessed forever. And so, God is greater than our heart. Greater, infinitely greater is the defender than the accuser. God is the defender, the heart is the accuser. What, is that the proportion? So, even so it is. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? Nobody. Why? Because it is Jesus Christ, who also is God, who died, nay rather who is risen again. If God be for us, then who can be against us.—WA 56; 204, 14.
When the Church of England took up the torch of the Reformation, "The Homily of Salvation" in her Homilies of 1562 affirmed:
    Christ is now the righteousness of all that truly believe in Him . . . Three things must go together in our justification: upon God's part His great mercy and grace; upon Christ's part, justice, that is the satisfaction of God's justice, or the price of our redemption by the offering of His body and the shedding of His blood with the fulfillment of the law perfectly and thoroughly; and upon our part true and lively faith in Jesus Christ, which yet is not ours but God working in us Justification is not a thing which we render unto Him, but which we receive of Him; not which we give to Him, but which we take of Him, by His free mercy, and by the merits of His most dearly beloved Son, our only Redeemer, Saviour and Justifier, Jesus Christ.
And ere the Reformation century ended, Bishop Richard Hooker — "the judicious Hooker"  — added his weighty words on Justification:
    Christ has merited righteousness for as many as are found in Him. And in Him God finds us, if we be believers; for by believing we are incorporated into Christ. [Even the man who is full of sin,] being found in Christ through faith and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholds with a gracious eye and accepts him in Jesus Christ as perfectly righteous as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded in the holy law of God.

Indeed, this objective basis for our justification has been recognized by the true evangelicals of every denomination. In his Grace Abounding for the Chief of Sinners John Bunyan, "the bishop of the Baptists,"  tells us how in a woeful state of mind "this sentence fell upon my soul: Thy righteousness is in heaven. And I saw that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, the same yesterday, today and forever."

Or come to the Northhampton, Massachusetts Congregational Church in November, 1734. According to Jonathan Edwards, it was while he was defending in the pulpit the doctrine of justification by faith alone that "God's work wonderfully brake forth among us and souls began to flock to Christ in whose righteousness alone they hoped to be justified." This then was the doctrine of the Great Awakening, which saved America from paganism and first gave the thirteen Colonies a sense of unity.

In England a young minister was so moved by an account of these remarkable conversions that he sought a further work of grace for his own life. John Wesley writes of a reading of Luther on Romans in a Moravian Society, May 24,1738:
    While Luther was describing the change God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt that I did trust in Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Later, in his sermon on "The Lord Our Righteousness," Wesley professed to agree with Calvin on this doctrine — namely, "that the righteousness of Christ, both His active and passive righteousness, is the meritorious cause of our justification, and has procured at God's hand that, upon our believing, we should be accounted righteous by Him." Accordingly, he sings:
    Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
    My beauty are, my glorious dress:
    Midst flaming worlds in these array'd,
    With joy shall I lift up my head.
As his end drew near, the dying evangelist cried, "There is no way into the holiest but by the blood of Jesus."

Philippians 3:9 reads, " . . . and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God upon faith." B. B. Warfield expounds this as teaching "the alien righteousness."
    Justification by faith is not to be set in contradiction to justification by works. It is set in contradiction only to justification by our own works. It is justification by Christ's works. The whole question, accordingly, is whether we can hope to be received into God's favor on the ground of what we do ourselves, or only on the ground of what Christ does for us. If we expect to be received on the ground of what we do ourselves—this is called justification by works. If on the ground of what Christ has done for us—that is what is meant by justification by faith. Justification by faith means, that is to say, that we look to Christ and to Him alone for salvation and come to God pleading Christ's death and righteousness as ground of our hope to be received into His favor.
"God in Christ does it all." We are never acceptable merely in ourselves. We are accepted only in Christ.

A recent confirmation of this objective basis for our justification comes from an unexpected source. A prominent Roman Catholic scholar, Hans Kung (Justification), finds objective justification in Christ, in His perfect obedience, in His crucifixion for our sins, in His resurrection for our justification. Then he names faith as our subjective justification — that is, as our Amen, our acceptance of what God has done for us in Christ, our approval of God's way of saving us sinners. [Editor's note: we will discuss Kung's view of justification in a future issue.]

Columbia Theological Seminary existed for almost a century in Columbia, South Carolina. In Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, there is a lot bearing the words "Columbia Seminary." Above, facing the entrance, is a monument carrying the inscription, "Christ Is Our Righteousness." This is the faith which Columbia has taught through the years. By God's grace, may she ever proclaim Christ our righteousness!

The Law and the Gospel, or the Gospel and the Law?

How does the righteousness which Christ wrought out for us become ours? "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). By His Word God calls us sinners to Christ. In this call the Holy Spirit uses both the law and the gospel. In which order do they come? Fifty-five years ago Dr. John D. "Jack" Davis told us that the men of old Princeton who went into the Midwest often held a two-weeks' meeting in each place. The first week they preached the law, and the second the gospel. The results were sound conversions and strong churches. On the other hand, Karl Barth, following the Heidelberg Catechism, put the gospel first and the law second (cf. his Evangelium and Gesetz). Yet a study of Romans shows that these differences are not necessarily divisive. Properly understood, they are complementary.

After an introduction (Rom. 1:1-17) the apostle shows by the law of nature and the law of Moses that all — Gentiles and Jews — have sinned and continue to come short of the glory of God. As the Spirit applies the law to our consciences, He exposes our guilt, convincing us that by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in God's sight. By the law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:19, 20) — or, "What the law does is to make man know that he has sinned" (TEV). Galatians 3:24 describes the law as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ that we may be justified by faith in Him (see also 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

After this use of the law in bringing sinners to know their need for Christ, Romans sets forth the gospel from 3:21 through chapter 11. From the great exposition of the righteousness God has provided in Christ, the apostle returns to the application thereof in the life — that is, he moves from the gospel to the law. From gospel to law is also the order of his thought in Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Here the indicative lays the foundation for the imperative. By all that God has done for us in Christ, the gospel calls us to the obedience of faith. Grace evokes gratitude. Our Lord said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15; cf. 14:21, 23; 15:10; 1 John 5:3). It is by the hearing of faith that we receive the Spirit (Gal. 3:2), who causes us to delight in the law of God after the inward man (Rom. 7:22). In justification the law points us to Christ as the only righteousness acceptable to God. In sanctification Christ points us to the law as, by the memory of all His benefits, He calls our hearts to the grateful obedience of faith. Thus we conclude that in justification the order is generally first the law and then the gospel, while in sanctification the order is rather the gospel and then the law. Yet Walther, a wise Lutheran patriarch, advised that every sermon ought to have some of the law to humble the proud and some of the gospel to comfort the depressed.

The Life of Faith

God justifies everyone who puts his trust in Christ and continues to believe in Him — that is, as we constantly believe, God constantly justifies. This is particularly evident in such a text as Acts 13:39, where a present participle is used with a present verb, indicating an action in progress which is simultaneous with the action of the principal verb: "Through this One is the forgiveness of sins, and by Him everyone who believes and keeps on believing is justified."

The Greek verb pisteuo is used both in the aorist tense, denoting punctiliar action (e.g., Gal. 2:16; Acts 19:2,4; 16:31), and even more often in the present tense, indicating continuous or linear action. The apostles used the aorist of punctiliar action when they answered the Philippian jailor, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved," for only instantaneous decision could save him from his own drawn sword. But in Romans 1:16, 17 the gospel is God's saving power to everyone who is believing, who has faith. For therein is revealed the righteousness of God from a way that starts in faith to one that ends in faith, for the just shall live by faith. In Romans 3:22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ is upon all who are believing. Romans 4:5 says, "To him who is not working but is believing upon Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness." The apostle confesses, "I am living by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20). Near the end of his life he declares, "I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7).

We are to walk in faith (2 Cor. 5:7) — that is, to walk in Christ (Col. 2:6). For if we continue grounded and steadfast in the faith, not moved away from the hope of the gospel, we shall be presented holy and unreprovable before God (Col. 1:22, 23). Likewise, the Epistle to the Hebrews testifies that we become partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end (Heb. 3:6, 14). According to 1 Peter 1:7-9, the proof of our faith is that it may be found unto glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

As we turn to the Gospels, John 3:15, 16 (NEB) declares that everyone who has faith in Christ shall have everlasting life. Jesus' parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3f) teaches that it is only the good soil which yields a hundredfold or sixtyfold or thirtyfold that is pleasing to the divine Sower. In the Lord's Prayer we pray for forgiveness as often as we pray for our daily bread.

Then in the golden chain of salvation, Romans 8:30, justification spans our Christian life all the way from calling or conversion to glorification: "Whom He called, them He justified; whom He justified, them He also glorified." Here justification, our standing before God, is coterminous with sanctification, our being conformed to the image of God's Son, in Romans 8:29. In 1 Corinthians 1:30 the apostle mentions Christ as our righteousness or justification before he names Him as our sanctification. But in 1 Corinthians 6:11 the order is reversed: "You are washed, you are sanctified, you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God."

Accordingly, Luther taught that to accept justification by faith in Christ is our whole work for the whole Christian life. We never learn this too well. For the forgiveness of sins is a continuous divine work until we die. Christ saves us perpetually (Luther's Works, American ed. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955- ), Vol.34, pp.164,167,190). Likewise Calvin, commenting on Romans 4:3, observes that God reckoned faith as righteousness, not at the time Abraham was serving idols, but after he had for many years excelled in holiness of life. Thus Calvin concludes that we must have this blessedness of righteousness by faith in Christ not just once, but must hold it through life (Institutes, Bk.3, chap. 14, sec. 11). Further treating of the church, Calvin says that God brings us into fellowship with Himself by forgiving our sins and keeps us there by daily forgiving them (Institutes, Bk. 4, chap. 1, secs. 20,21).

The atonement accomplished by Christ is a once-for-all event (Heb. 10:10-14), but His heavenly intercession on the basis thereof is continuous, and our laying hold of its benefits—our laying hold of Him who loved us and died for us—needs to be repeated every day and every hour. Like the manna, it needs to be gathered daily.

The great biblical example of faith is Abraham. This patriarch was called to step out on the promises of God (Gen. 12). "He went out, not knowing whither he went," and God brought him into Canaan, the promised land. Yet he had to continue a life of faith, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of an heir until both he and Sarah were far beyond the age of parenthood. Even after God miraculously gave them Isaac, Abraham was required to offer the son of promise as a sacrifice, believing that God would raise Isaac from the dead and so fulfill His promise (Heb. 11:17-19). Accordingly, it is written both of Abraham and Sarah, "These all died in faith" (Heb. 11:13).

In the history of Columbia Theological Seminary our man of faith was Dr. George Howe. When this institution was barely getting started with Dr. Thomas Goulding, we desperately needed a scholar trained in biblical learning and familiar with theological curricula. An Abbott scholar trained under Dr. Moses Stuart of Andover was in Charleston for his health. But the year was 1830 — the year of nullification in South Carolina. The scholar was from Massachusetts, and it was feared that he could not fit into our Southern situation. At the urging of two of his classmates, however, Howe was invited to preach to the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia. In his sermon Howe compared faith to the compass needle. As the tripod is moved, the needle oscillates. But let the table be leveled and quiet, and the needle returns in a steady point to the magnetic north. So the cares and troubles of life shake the faith even of the true believer. But let the storms clear a bit, and faith settles down into a firm point toward God in Christ. Dr. Moses Waddell of Athens exclaimed in a stage whisper, "Magnificent!" George Howe was called for a year, and then permanently. A few years later he was elected to a chair at Union, New York, but declined the flattering promotion and gave his life of faith to over fifty-two years of service as professor in Columbia. Near the end of his life he was asked if he still trusted in Jesus. He replied, "Yes, what would I do did I not trust in Him?" Howe lived a life of faith and died in faith.

The other Sunday there was a celebration of the founding of Thornwell Orphanage. Dr. William Plumer Jacobs earnestly sought to establish a home for little ones bereaved of parents and also a college for the education of the young people of that section. But he described himself as too feeble and lamented that his faith was too weak. Yet Luther has declared that even weak faith prevails, and our Lord said, "If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed . . . " So today Thornwell Orphanage and Presbyterian College are living memorials to the dynamic faith in this frail Christian pastor.

In Georgia, north of Rome, the lofty structures of Berry Schools attest the life of faith of the "little lady of possom trot" — Miss Martha Berry.

Since this is a theological seminary, may I suggest that every minister needs the whole "faith which is believed," fides quae creditur, to support the "faith with which it is believed," fides qua creditur, for the whole of the living and dying of himself and the members of his flock. If some article in the faith is difficult for you or does not seem necessary, do not brush it aside and reject it. If for the moment you cannot fully accept it, hold it in suspended judgment.

When I cross the roaring Niagara, I want the strongest possible bridge of steel and concrete under me. But what is crossing Niagara Falls compared with stepping from time into eternity? Therefore let me meet eternity undergirded not with a minimum but with a maximum faith. So let us heed the exhortation of Jude to build ourselves up on our most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping ourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. "For these are the words of the First and the Last, the One who died and lived again . . . : Only be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:8,10).