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The Legal and Moral Aspects of Salvation

Part 1 (of 3 parts)

The Protestant Reformation was born out of the conviction that justification was a legal word and a forensic transaction. The Reformers did not devalue man's moral renewal, but they were careful not to include the moral change in justification itself. To be sure, justification opened the door to the new life in the Spirit and bore the fruit of transformation of character, but the root was not confused with the fruit.

Perhaps Protestant scholasticism (orthodoxy), which followed the Reformation, did tend to emphasize forensic justification in a way that seemed to devalue moral renewal. Instead of opening the door to a vital heart religion and highlighting the fruit of moral renewal, its dry objectivism tended to depersonalize and devitalize Christianity.

We realize that it is easy to distort the picture through such a brief generalization or be guilty of blaming the great teachers of the church for the problem when much of the cause for any dry sterility lay with the carnal hearers. Human nature always thinks it more convenient to assent to theological propositions than to submit to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

Pietism and Methodism did not wish to deny the Reformation insights into the Pauline doctrine of justification, but wanted to plead for a vital heart religion as well as to protest against justification without personal holiness. Wesley insisted that it was vain to talk about salvation by imputed righteousness while the heart remained a stranger to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. He too believed that justification was a change in legal standing, but he insisted that this must be accompanied by a vital change in the moral state. Of course, in this respect he was not saying anything new or anything that was not already in the great Protestant heritage, but his emphasis on a vital heart experience did infuse a new moral fervor into the Protestant movement.

To say that a moral transformation in man must accompany justification is quite true to the best in the Protestant heritage. But as we will now see, the emphasis today on the inner life of the believer has gone beyond having a place beneath the umbrella of justification (as in the theology of the Reformers) or even beside justification (as in the theology of the Wesleyans). In one way or another the moral aspects of redemption (new birth, regeneration, sanctification, new life in the Spirit, etc.) have actually supplanted the legal aspects of redemption (substitution, imputation, justification, etc.). This repudiation of justification (sometimes overt and conscious and sometimes covert and unconscious) takes the following forms:

Form 1. The moral aspects of redemption are elevated above the legal aspects of redemption. Legal justification appears rather abstract and unreal. Moral renewal seems to be more concrete and real. After all, is not the essence of Christianity fellowship with God and loving our fellow men? So why not get down to the "real business" of living the Christian life and let the modern Pharisees (theologians) worry about the legal niceties of justification? So the argument goes.

Form 2. Justification is said to be a real moral renewal and inner transformation. The legal and the moral are seen to be two aspects of the one reality. The man who is morally renewed is right with God, not by virtue of some "abstract legal fiction of imputed righteousness," but by virtue of the fact that he is indeed a new man in whom God's Spirit dwells. He is therefore legally right with God because he is morally right with God.

Form 3. While "Form 1" elevates the moral above the legal and "Form 2" completely commingles the legal with the moral, "Form 3" is more bold. Those who advocate this position propose that we do away with the legal aspects of redemption altogether. In this line of thought "legal" is made to appear guilty by association with "legalism" and is damned with it.

Justification Scholastically Remodeled

Let us take some concrete illustrations of how modern scholars have tried to reshape the doctrine of justification:

W. Wrede

W. Wrede in Paul ([1907], p. 123) represents many who have argued that Paul's doctrine of justification was only his polemic against the Judaizers. "In fact," he says, "the whole Pauline religion can be expounded without a word being said about the doctrine, unless it be in the part devoted to the law."

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (The Mysticism of St. Paul [1931], p.225) contends that justification is only a "subsidiary" doctrine in Pauline teaching. The main thing to Schweitzer is the mystical experience of union with Christ.

E. Andrews

E. Andrews (The Meaning of Christ for Paul [1949], p.65) expresses the feeling of many when he says that justification is a "judicial and inferior notion" compared with the much higher and finer idea of imparted righteousness.

H. J. Schoeps

H. J. Schoeps (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism [1955]) has even written an entire book on Pauline theology in which a section on justification is conspicuous by its absence.

W. Sanday and A. C. Headlan

W. Sanday and A. C. Headlan, in their great commentary on Romans ([1896], p.36), conceded that when God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5) and treats him "as though" he were righteous, this means that the Christian life is made to have its beginning in fiction.

Vincent Taylor

More recently, Vincent Taylor, bending over backwards to deny "legal fiction," says that justification comes about by an actual imparted righteousness. "Righteousness can be no more imputed to a sinner than bravery to a coward or wisdom to a fool. If through faith a man is accounted righteous, it must be because, in a reputable sense of the word, he is righteous, and not because another is righteous in his stead." — Forgiveness and Reconciliation, p.57. Taylor, who follows very closely the fathers of Trent at this point, says that by justification God "does for us what we cannot do for ourselves and thus creates in us a righteous mind for which we can claim no credit." —Ibid., p.60. This author is not just elevating the moral aspect (i.e., renewal) above the legal (as Andrews does, for instance), but he says that justification is renewal.

N. H. Snaith

N. H. Snaith (The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, p.165) goes even further and says that God does not require righteousness at all—either imputed or imparted—for justification. God, being sovereign, is not subject to any legal conditions, argues Snaith. Thus he cuts salvation loose from any legal categories altogether. (See also Dr. Maxwell in this same line.)

John Oman

John Oman (Grace and Personality, p.206) also excludes the legal element from justification altogether. Says he, "We are justified because by faith we enter the world of a gracious God, out of which the old hard legal requirements, with the old hard boundaries of our personality and the old self-regarding claim of rights, have disappeared, a world which is the household of our Father where order and power and ultimate reality are of love and not of law."

W. Fearon

W. Fearon (Reconciliation and Reality, p. 154) sees the essence of justification in the changed nature of the believer. Says he, "It has not always been seen that no man can be justified before God unless his nature is so changed that the assent of God is the assent of reality."

N. Berdyaev

N. Berdyaev (Freedom and the Spirit, p.351) sees justification as "a juridical notion created by the limitations of human thought, which were incapable of accepting the divine truth of Christianity." The central truth, he declares, is "that of transfiguration not justification."—Ibid., p.176.

Karl Holl

Back in 1917 Lutheran scholar Karl Holl voiced his rejection of the idea of a "declarative justification" whereby the sinner is justified solely on the basis of the work of Christ. Holl blamed this teaching on Melanchthon, but he argued that Luther understood justification as a real transformation of man as sinner to man as righteous. Holl advanced the idea of analytical justification — meaning that God justifies the believer because God, being eternal, sees what Christ's renewing power will eventually make him. If the believer is not altogether righteous now, he will be one day, because the renewing life of Christ is already at work in him and holds the promise of a righteous character. Justification "on account of Christ" is abandoned in favor of justification "on account of the beginning of the new creation" (see Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, pp.241, 242, and G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, pp.15, 16).

James Stewart

More recently, Holl's theory of justification is reflected by James Stewart (A Man in Christ, p.257), who describes justification in the following way: "His [the believer's ] position may not have altered much, but his direction has been changed completely; and it is by direction, not position, that God judges. Once the sinner had his back to Christ; now his face is Christward. This is faith, and it holds the potency of a glorious future. This is what God sees; and seeing it, God declares the man righteous. God 'justifies' him. Is this a 'legal fiction'? The question answers itself. There is nothing fictitious about it whatever. It is the deepest and most genuine of realities."1 This is a clear statement of analytical justification, or justification on account of the renewal within man.

W. Beck

W. Beck, U.S. Lutheran scholar, wrote an article in the Christian News (Dec. 1, 1975) on "What Does Dikaioo [Justify] Mean?" He argues that "to justify" means to "make righteous as well as to declare righteous". He says that the thing wrong with the Roman Catholic concept is not its definition of "make righteous," but its synergistic means. Like Holl, he too argues that he represents Luther's real position. He utterly repudiates the idea of justification by an "outside" righteousness by bringing in the usual objection of "legal fiction". Interestingly, he links his theory of justification by a real, inward infusion of righteousness to the Lutheran view of the Supper. He says that when God says the believer "is" righteous, he "is" righteous, just as when Christ says, "This is my body," it "is" His body.

These are just a few samples of the way in which modern scholars have been consciously reshaping and reinterpreting the doctrine of justification. How far has this process gone, and how general is this different understanding of justification within the Protestant movement?

As far back as 1881, English Roman Catholic scholar Henry Oxenham made this startling claim: "What Luther puts forward as the articulus stantis vel cadentis Ecclesiae [the article of the standing or falling Church], is in reality maintained by no theologian of name at the present day, either in his own country or in ours." —The Catholic Doctrine of Atonement, p.37. While Oxenham is obviously overstating his case in claiming the defection of all Protestant scholars from the original Protestant doctrine of justification, yet he could not have made such a statement unless defection was at least the general picture.

In our present century, Lutheran dogmatician Francis Piper goes a long way in agreeing with Oxenham when he says:

Most modern Protestant theologians have adopted the Roman view of the doctrine of justification, as Doellinger pointed out in his lectures on the reunion of the Christian Church (Lehre und Wehre, 1872, p.352). And recently Joseph Pohle wrote in The Catholic Encyclopedia, VIII, p.576: "The strict orthodoxy of the Old Lutherans, e.g., in the Kingdom of Saxony and the State of Missouri, alone continues to cling tenaciously to a system which otherwise would have slowly fallen into oblivion." The Christian doctrine of justification has not, of course, vanished from the earth to the extent indicated by Pohle. The so-called Missourians are not restricted to the State of Missouri and to Saxony; they are found in all States of the Union, in Canada, in South America, and on all continents. Furthermore, the doctrine of justification by faith, without the deeds of the Law, is preached by very many outside the Missouri Synod and the Saxon Free Church. And all Christians in the whole world believe this doctrine, also the Christians who are held captive in the external organization of the Papacy. But it is a fact that modern Protestant theology, which by the denial of Inspiration has surrendered the Scripture principle and develops doctrine from "experience" and other subjective sources, has discarded the Christian doctrine of justification. —Francis Piper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol.2, p.555.

Paul Tillich was able to make this comment about American Protestantism in 1953:
    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. There are the Lutheran and Calvinist groups, and they are strong, but they have adapted themselves to an astonishing degree to the climate of American Protestantism. This climate has been made not by them but by the sectarian movements. Thus, when I came to America twenty years ago, the theology of the Reformation was almost unknown in Union Theological Seminary in New York, because of the different traditions, and the reduction of the Protestant tradition nearer to the non-Reformation traditions. —Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, pp.225, 226.
Tillich even suggested that the Protestant era is at an end (ibid., p.225). He also remarked that the Reformation doctrine of justification makes no sense at all to modern religious man.2

Justification Evangelically Remodeled

Thus far we have dealt mainly with the statements of scholars who have more consciously and deliberately abandoned the way in which all the Reformers unitedly understood the doctrine of justification. But the drift away from the Reformation emphasis has not all been via a conscious departure. For instance, Herman Ridderbos pinpoints the evolution with these incisive comments:

    While in Luther and Calvin all the emphasis fell on the redemptive event that took place with Christ's death and resurrection, later under the influence of pietism, mysticism, and moralism, the emphasis shifted to the process of individual appropriation of the salvation given in Christ and to its mystical and moral effect in the life of believers. Accordingly, in the history of the interpretation of the epistles of Paul the center of gravity shifted more and more from the forensic to the pneumatic and ethical aspects of his preaching, and there arose an entirely different conception of the structures that lay at the foundation of this preaching. —Herman Ridderbos, Paul, An Outline of His Theology, p.14.

We say again, this drift away from the objective stance of the Reformation has not all been planned and deliberate. Most of it has probably been unconscious simply because human nature naturally gravitates to focus more on itself and what can be done in itself than upon what God has done outside of itself in Jesus Christ.

Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, pp.186-197) sees Protestant revivalism as doing more than anything else to move Protestants away from the theology of the Reformation to a closer compatibility with Roman Catholicism. Others implicate Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and the modern existential climate as most influential in causing theological thought to be based on subjective experience and orientated toward theological subjectivism. It probably depends on whether one's vision is more in the conservative or liberal stream as to which he thinks is most influential — revivalism or existentialism.

One main difference is this: the more liberal wing of the Christian movement has moved away from the concept of forensic justification as preached by the Reformers, and it generally knows it. The more conservative wing of the church has also moved away from the Reformation doctrine, but in the main does not know it.

The fact is that the popular evangelicalism of today does not really have a doctrine of justification. If the doctrine is assented to, it is given such poor treatment and such scant attention that it is really damned into oblivion. The moral change of the new birth experience has either supplanted justification or is understood to be the essence of justification anyhow. The modern evangelical thrust is generally based on the appeal to "Let Christ come into your heart." In this type of emphasis, salvation is not really based on God's righteousness historically revealed and transacted in the Christ event, but on the subjective religious experience called "Christ in the heart" — which can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

The great legal and juridical processes of redemption generally do not mean much, if anything, in the current religious scene. The moral and vital aspects of redemption dominate so overwhelmingly that the legal aspects are either subordinated or lost in the preoccupation with religious experience.

The Issues at Stake

Because we contend for the restoration of forensic justification to the primary place in soteriology, some will doubtless interpret this as an attempt to devalue the renewal of man. That too was Rome's argument against the Reformers, yet it was her fundamental error. It is not those who contend for the primacy of the legal aspects of redemption who really devalue sanctification, but the opposite is true. In this article we will try to reason from cause to effect and show that those who ignore the primacy of forensic justification remove the true foundation of moral renewal.

The most terrible consequence of ignoring the legal aspects of redemption is that one really ends up making the cross of Christ of none effect. If we could be saved simply by inviting Christ to come into our hearts to effect a moral transformation, then we must say with Luther that Christ labored foolishly and suffered in vain if God could save us simply by an inward transformation. Or are we going to say that what happened at Calvary was merely a moral influence to inspire us (Servants or Friends?, Can God Be Trusted by Dr. A. Graham Maxwell) to deal with sin in the existential situation?

The Bible is clear that God's righteousness did something in the Christ event. Sin was dealt with, Satan was defeated, death was destroyed, and redemption was accomplished. And this mighty action of God, which transcends every other action for all eternity, was not a work done in us (moral), but was a work done outside of us in the Person of Christ (legal). As the old theologians used to say, the atonement was the satisfaction which Christ gave to the divine law on our behalf. It was the fulfilling of the terms of the legal covenant by our Representative in order that God could forgive sinners without sacrificing the honor of divine justice. Our justification is great because it is founded on such a great work — a work far greater and infinitely more glorious than our moral renewal — as great as that is.

Everybody ought to know that the Reformers were the great destroyers of legalism in the church. But they uprooted legalism by teaching a legal justification based on the legal doctrine of atonement. They proclaimed that Christ both fulfilled and satisfied the claims of God's law on our behalf. If sinners can be justified solely by faith in the satisfaction that Christ gave to the law, and if the life and blood of the Lord of glory are the price of their justification, then it is forever certain that they cannot be justified by anything done by them nor by anything done in them. Legalism is damnable, not because it is legal (lawful, righteous), but because it is illegal (unlawful, unrighteous). Legalism offers to the law less than it requires. When the sinner sees Calvary and understands that this is exactly what the law requires for justification, he will not presume to offer anything less to the law.

It can be demonstrated doctrinally and historically that the legal view of the atonement and justification kills legalism and is the only basis of moral renewal. On the other hand, the moral influence theory of the atonement and the moral renewal view of justification lead inevitably to legalism because they ground salvation on some phase of the human experience — whether that experience is said to be faith, new birth, new life in the Spirit, or the new obedience of the believer. "But this is really to rob the soul of the objective ground of righteousness and confuses spiritual acceptance with spiritual attainments." —W.H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-nine Articles, p.188. When that takes place, this comment about the life of Pusey is applicable: "The absence of joy in his religious life was only the inevitable effect of his conception of God's method of saving men; in parting with the Lutheran truth concerning justification he parted with the springs of gladness."—Ibid., p.193.

The two aspects of salvation — the legal and the moral — must be maintained in soteriology as strenuously as we maintain the two natures of Christ in Christology. Both distinction and harmony must be upheld. True and original Protestantism affirmed both the legal and the moral aspects of salvation. It refused to subordinate the legal to the moral, but affirmed the primacy of the legal in three major areas:

1. In the matter of sin the primary problem was seen as guilt (legal) rather than pollution (moral).

2. In the nature of the atonement the primary work was satisfaction to the law (legal) and not just a demonstration to change man's idea about God (moral).

3. In the application of redemption justification (legal) must precede and be the foundation of sanctification (moral).

Much is at stake here. If the legal aspects of redemption are lost, the doctrine of justification is lost. And (as Luther often warned) if justification is lost, all true Christian doctrine is lost, and nothing remains but darkness and ignorance of God. We are faced here with a situation which could spell the absolute demise of Protestantism and the triumph of the opposite stream of religious thought. Or to put this another way, we face the rejection of revealed religion in favor of the religion based on the religious insights of human nature.

(To be continued)



1 This statement by Stewart is quoted with approval in Sakae Kubo's book, Acquitted! Message from the Cross (1975), pp. 13,14.

2 We do not quote Tillich to approve of his own radical departure from orthodox Christianity, but he is cited here simply as a historian of Christian thought. At least Tillich was well acquainted with Reformation literature and theology — which is more than can be said of some of his critics.