The Doctrine of Justification by Faith and Holiness
Reprinted from The Foundations of Our Faith (London: Strahan and co., 1863), pp.201.220.
The subject that is now to occupy us, the doctrine of justification by faith, is, in a dogmatic point of view, based upon the foregoing Lectures, more especially those that treated respectively of Sin and of the Atonement. We are now, however, about to consider this subject from the moral point of view. For, apart from the dogmatic objections which have been already combated, this doctrine has often been objected to in the supposed interests of morality. Now it is a doctrine which, in the New Testament, appears with especial prominence in the epistles of St. Paul, and which, at the time of the Reformation, constituted the fundamental point of difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. To prove this latter assertion, we have only to review a few passages of Protestant Confessions of faith. First, we will take the Basle Confession of the year 1534: "We acknowledge the remission of sins by faith in Jesus Christ the crucified. And although this faith be continually practiced, proved, and confirmed by works of love, yet we attribute justification and satisfaction for our sins not to these works which are the fruits of faith, but only to our true reliance on and faith in the blood-shedding of the Lamb of God. For we freely acknowledge that in Christ, who is our justification, sanctification, redemption, way, truth, wisdom, and life, all things are given to us. Hence the good works of believers do not expiate their sins, but are done solely out of gratitude to God the Lord for his great benefits to usward in Christ." The Heidelberg Confession also gives a most striking and hearty popular expression to this doctrine. Here is the answer to the sixtieth question, as to the mode of justification before God: "Only by true faith in Jesus Christ, whereby, although my conscience accuses me of having grievously transgressed all God's commandments, and never having kept one, as well as of being continually inclined to all that is evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of pure grace, bestows on me, imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, justification, and sanctification of Christ, as fully as though I had never committed any sin, and had myself rendered the obedience Christ rendered in my stead, if only I will accept all these benefits with a believing heart." As to the teaching of the Lutheran Church on this point, I only need to recall the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession: "On justification. —Further, be it enjoined, that we are unable to attain to forgiveness of sin or righteousness before God through any merits, works, or expiation of our own, but that we obtain forgiveness and are counted righteous before him through grace by faith, and for the sake of Christ, we believing that Christ has suffered for us, and that on that account our sins are forgiven, and righteousness and eternal life bestowed on us. For this faith, God will look upon, and reckon to us, as righteousness, as St. Paul says to the Romans (chap iii. 4)."
In direct opposition to this Protestant testimony, we will only here adduce on the side of Catholicism, the twelfth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. "If any man shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in the Divine mercy which forgives the sinner for the sake of Christ, or that it is by this trust alone that man is justified —let him be accursed."
This Protestant doctrine it was which, at the time of the Reformation, not only formed a fundamental difference, but, at the manifold negotiations to which it led, was the chief hindrance to a reunion of both Confessions. It was vehemently attacked from a moral point of view, not merely by its Romish opponents, but by many who, in other respects, were inclined to Protestantism; and we may safely assert that numbers who were violent against the night of error and abuse in the Church of Rome, and who highly estimated the merits of Luther, yet in relation to this doctrine, which was in fact the essential point at issue, remained — perhaps without suspecting it — very good Catholics all the time. Now men are perfectly justified in applying the standard of morality to an article of faith, and it ought to be acknowledged a step in the right direction when any doctrine, which cannot legitimize itself both by its own moral character and its influence on mankind, awakens suspicion. Only we must be careful to draw our moral standard not from a superficial survey, but a profound search into the real moral needs of our nature.
The attacks which have been made in the interests of morality upon the doctrine in question, may be reduced to two questions — 1. Is it not in itself an immoral idea that God should, on account of a man's faith, pronounce him to be righteous, when in point of fact he is not so? 2. Would not such an imputed righteousness as this necessarily destroy all moral effort?
This charge of immorality naturally suggests to us an easy, practical refutation; for as Christians, we cannot admit that Pauline Christianity, and as Protestants, we cannot admit that the Reformation, rests upon an immoral basis. Neither has the doctrine called in question, whether as exemplified in Paul, or in the champions of the Reformation — a Luther, a Melanchthon, a Calvin, etc. — or in the social history of Protestantism generally, had practically any immoral tendency. However, we will not allow this train of thought to interfere with the examination of the doctrine, but rather encourage us to carry it on very carefully, and to enter more deeply into the question, before we allow ourselves to come to a decision.
It is evident that, within our present limits, we cannot set before you an account of all the controversies to which our doctrine gave rise, or a special defense of all that has been said on this side, and a special contradiction of all brought forward on that. This would lead us into a web of occasionally most subtle distinctions. The conflict has been actively renewed within the last thirty years by the appearance of a very spirited and learned work of the Catholic theologian Mohler; and in de fence of the Protestant doctrine, several have taken up the pen who certainly cannot be reproached with a narrow orthodoxy: I may instance Marheineke, and the recently deceased Professor Baur of Tubingen. A closer examination of the controversy shows how in the Protestant camp, in the heat of argument and opposition, several maxims, expressions, and illustrations have been employed, which certainly betray a rather one-sided, strained, and harsh spirit, and must therefore be sometimes qualified; as, for instance, when the Lutheran Nicolaus of Amsdorf undertakes to prove that the proposition, "Good works are injurious to salvation," is a true and a Christian one. On the other side, we observe how those Catholics who feel anxious to grasp the deeper meaning of the doctrines of their church, and to defend them by scientific weapons, have unconsciously drawn nearer in many respects to Protestant views. But all these points we must at present leave untouched, confining ourselves to the thorough examination of the true Protestant doctrine, and seeking to justify it from the charges made against its morality.
The Justification of the Ungodly
I. First, then, "According to the Protestant doctrine," say some, "a righteousness external to man — alien to him, is imputed to him; he is declared righteous by God without actually being so. This is an untrue and immoral principle." Here we must set out by reminding our opponents that it is necessary for them to understand the idea of this reckoning, or imputing, in the sense that we hold it. In this, as in all cases where divine actions are represented by expressions borrowed from human life, it is essential to make allowance for the inadequacy inherent in these expressions. Thus this reckoning or imputing of which we speak, is not an external affair, as in the business of daily life, when a discharge is written out and given and reckoned to B., because A. has undertaken to be a surety for him, whether as to work to be done or payment to be made. This is, indeed, a purely external matter to B., however closely it may affect him, affect him even while he knows nothing of it. Not so, however, is it with Christ's representation of humanity. Here we are not treating of a certain amount of virtue, of good works which have got to be done, it matters not by whom, and Christ has done them; or, again, of a certain amount of punishment which has got to be endured, it matters not by whom, and Christ has endured it. Most assuredly we are to entertain no such lifeless conception of Christ's representative righteousness, and of the active and passive obedience he has rendered. Rather Christ's holy life and holy works on the one side; his holy sufferings and holy death on the other, — constitute that work of redemption and expiation, which brings about a decided reaction against sin and its consequences; atones at once for the sins of mankind, and is to mankind both a new origin of life — whence Christ is called the second Adam, — and a new condition of life — mankind having now through Christ fellowship with God.
But at the same time, every man is not, as a matter of course, without anything further, a sharer in this new life; faith in Christ is the necessary condition to its attainment. By faith, however, as has already in these Lectures been frequently observed, in connection with different subjects, and from different points of view, —by faith we are by no means to understand a theoretical process, which only affects the human intellect; but rather, a specially practical relative position; the energetic laying hold by man of that grace of God which was by Christ realized in humanity, and is now in Christ offered to humanity; or, more briefly, it is the energetic laying hold of Christ himself; and consequently, it is a process which affects spiritual life in its very core, a process by which the man is implanted or incorporated into Christ, and thus has, by fellowship with him, a share in that reaction brought about by Christ against the sin and guilt of humanity.
Thus are the believer's personal sins and guilt now atoned for by Christ, and he stands in that fellowship with the divine life which Christ has restored in humanity. Luther, in his famous treatise on the liberty of a Christian, has treated this truth in a most profound manner, mystically if you will, but mystically in the best sense of the word, mystically in so far as he was discussing the tenderest and intimate mystery of godliness. These are his words: "Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride to the bridegroom. From which union it follows, as St. Paul says (Eph. v.20), that Christ and the soul become one body; and also that they have their possessions, their mischances, and all things in common, that which is Christ's belonging to the believing soul, that which is the soul's belonging to Christ. If Christ has all holiness and blessedness, these belong to the soul. If the soul has all unrighteousness and sin, these belong to Christ. Here then we see a glad exchange and emulation. Because Christ is God and man, who never sinned, and his holiness unconquerable, eternal, and almighty, he, through the bridal ring, which is faith, appropriates the sins of the believing soul as his own, as though they had been committed by him, and thus the sins must needs be swallowed up and drowned in him. For his unconquerable holiness is too strong for any or all sin. Thus the soul is purified from all sin through its dowry; that is, on account of its faith, and not only goes perfectly free, but is endowed with the righteousness of its bridegroom, Christ."
Thus it appears that to the believer the righteousness of Christ is no more an external and foreign thing that can only be arbitrarily imputed to him; but rather it is something appropriated by him, essentially his own, by reason, if I may so speak, of the solidarity which has been brought about between himself and Christ. The believer has no longer a separate existence, but lives henceforth in fellowship with Christ, as a member incorporated in him, and accordingly he is looked upon by God, not as what he is in and by himself, but as what he is in that relation to Christ which faith has occasioned.
And further, it follows that faith cannot possibly be indifferent to morality, as is presumed by that often repeated charge: "Very convenient indeed! no matter how a man thinks and feels and lives, he believes, and therefore is declared righteous." On the contrary, faith in its energetic laying hold of Christ and his righteousness, is a spiritual action of a positively moral character. "Faith," says Luther, in his preface to the Epistle to the Romans, "is a living, well-considered reliance on God's grace, so sure and certain that I could die for it a thousand times."
Again, the Heidelberg Catechism calls faith "a hearty trust, worked in us by the Holy Spirit, through the gospel." Now, if according to Protestant doctrine it is the Holy Ghost who produces faith in men, and without whom they never could attain to it (as Paul himself had already declared, "No man can call Jesus Lord, but by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. xii. 3), it is equally true that it is the human spirit in which he works, and whose energies he sets in motion, and it is the human will to which he imparts this decided direction towards Christ, so that faith can in no sense be a purely passive relation, but rather a condition of the highest activity. Only it behoves our Protestant doctrine vigorously to guard against faith itself having a certain kind of merit attributed to it, as though, as the subjective condition and indwelling quality of a man, it made that man so well pleasing in the eyes of God, that therefore God counted him to be righteous, in which case man would indeed have a righteousness in himself, that is, in his faith. Whereas the believer has no righteousness in himself, but only in Christ, his faith being but the means whereby he appropriates to himself Christ and his righteousness. It is against this mistaken estimation of faith that the Heidelberg Catechism expressly guards when it follows up the 60th question, the answer to which we have already given, by the following words: 'Wherefore sayest thou, that thou art justified by faith only?' and replies to them, "Not because I, on account of the worthiness of my faith, am well pleasing to God; for the satisfaction, justification, and sanctification of Christ are my only righteousness before God, and I do nothing by my faith, but receive these and make them my own."
Faith Is Inseparable from Repentance
But the moral character of faith will appear still more distinctly, if we consider how inseparable faith is from the negative moment—Repentance; repentance in the biblical sense, which nowhere means expiation of guilt by punishment, but change of mind with regard to sin; a condemning of sin, not merely in a general way, but a condemning of a man's own personal sin, which takes the form of regret; of a sorrowful consciousness both of individual sinful actions, in thought, word, and deed, and of the sinful nature from which these actions have proceeded; of a sorrowful consciousness, too, of personal inability to make up for past evil, or even to shake off all connection with evil in the future; of a sorrowful consciousness, in short, of how hateful sin is in the eyes of the holy God, and how it separates a man from him. A consciousness this, whose intensity in no way depends upon the relative greatness or uncommon nature of these individual sins, but upon the depth of the moral feeling and the measure of susceptibility to the contrast between a holy God and sinful man. But still less here than with regard to faith, should there be any idea entertained of merit, as though a man's repentance were in some sense his righteousness. Rather, repentance is that painful sense and acknowledgment of utter want of any righteousness whatever of a man's own, which drives him to seek a righteousness external to himself, and is consequently the preparatory condition of that faith which finds it in Christ.
These observations indeed contain the peculiar features of the Protestant doctrine of justification, but still we have not as yet brought them out with sufficient prominence. That men become righteous and are saved by the merits of Christ, and that faith is necessary to the appropriation of these, both Churches concur in affirming. The difference between them first makes itself apparent in their conception of the process of appropriation, in their definition of what justification is in itself, and how man attains to it. According to Catholic theology, justification is not a declaring, but a making of the sinner righteous, i.e., through the merits of the holy sufferings of Christ the Holy Spirit pours the love of God into the heart of man; man becomes inwardly renewed, and can and will now keep the law of God, and do such good works as are conformable thereto. All this together, they hold, constitutes justification. "In justification itself," says the Council of Trent, in the seventh chapter of the sixth session, "man receives through Christ, in whom he is engrafted, together with forgiveness of sins, faith, hope, and love." At first sight this view may not seem to differ very essentially from the Protestant; but if we look at it closely, we shall perceive how much here the moment of pardon, of forgiveness of sins, is pushed into the background, justification being confounded with what we distinguish as sanctification, —never, therefore, coming to an end, but understood as a subjective process which goes on throughout life, for the justified, as the tenth chapter of the same Session expressly declares, are ever more and more justified. The Protestant doctrine, on the contrary, distinguishes justification as an independent moment, from the sanctification which is its immediate consequence; justification itself, according to this doctrine, consisting in God declaring man righteous, i.e., judicially absolved from all guilt, so that from that time forth, man may be fully conscious of being reconciled to God, assured of his pardon, and in the enjoyment of his peace; and, further, if with this experience in his heart he should immediately die, he would be certain of dying saved, and of escaping judgment; and all this, not on the ground of any worthiness whatever of his own, as though his righteousness were in himself; but for the sake of Christ, with whom he is so incorporated by faith, that he no longer lives in himself but in Christ, and thus is no more viewed by God as existing independently, but as connected with Christ, as a member of the spiritual body of which Christ is the head.
Paul and Luther
It is possible, indeed, that at the first glance this Catholic doctrine may appear the more comprehensible and clear of the two to what one calls man's common sense; but still the closer examination to which our deeper religious and moral wants invite us, will reveal truth on the side of the Protestant. Let us make this evident by reverting to the experience of the two men in whom this doctrine of justification by faith appears to be equally embodied: to that of the apostle Paul, who first defined it in all its distinctness, and of Luther, who not only made it the principle of his own Christian life, but of his whole work of Reformation. When Paul, after the appearance of the Lord to him on his way to Damascus, underwent a three days' mental conflict, his bodily eyes being sealed, but the eyes of his understanding opened to recognize the whole of his former life as mistaken,—spent in unbelief and resistance to that God whom by his bloody persecuting zeal he had thought to serve,—pardon was already bestowed upon him, he being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. He, on his side, brought nothing to insure it, except sorrow for his past life and faith in Christ; he was only conscious, as far as he was himself concerned, of being laden with guilt, and of seeking righteousness in Christ, and yet he could thenceforth feel certified of God's grace, for the sake of that Jesus whom he had persecuted. While his repentance could discover nothing in himself but wrath-deserving unrighteousness, he already knew by experience what it was to be found in Christ, and to have for righteousness that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith (Phil. iii. 9); for his being in Christ was owing to faith alone. This was his justification, an independent act of divine mercy, which was antecedent to the new life he was now entering upon, and the origin and the source of all that followed. This consciousness of justifying grace, laid hold of only through faith in Christ, is henceforth the key-note of his whole life, and sounds throughout all his epistles; this his conviction once for all and for ever, that man is justified without the works of the law, —justified by faith.
Let us now glance at the spiritual history of the reformer, Martin Luther. He is living in his cell at Erfurth, a pious monk, in the best sense of the word. He keeps the rules of his Order with conscientious strictness, and he does this not with the hypocritical intent to make up as it were to God, by outward observances and mortifications, for neglect of far more important moral duties; no, he is seeking in earnest to please God and make his peace with him; and, according to the belief of the age, he considers this monastic life, with all its privations, the most certain way of attaining that end; asceticism is to be to him a means of sanctification and subjugation of all evil tendencies. This course, however, in no way leads him to peace with God; on the contrary, he becomes only more strongly convinced of the wide gulf between his sinful nature and the divine, and he sinks into profound anxiety and gloom. Nothing comforts him but a speech of an old brother monk, who reminds him that the Christian creed contains the words, "I believe in the remission of sins." The significance of this remission of sins, as an independent moment, already dawns upon his mind, and his office of doctor of the Holy Scriptures giving him an opportunity of thoroughly studying the epistles of St. Paul, he soon enjoys the full light of truth and consolation. In them he finds laid down as a fact,—experimentally verified and most clearly impressed on the writer's consciousness, —the mode of man's justification and attainment of spiritual peace. His own experience assents to the declaration of the apostle, "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. v. 1). Henceforth this is for him essentially the gospel of salvation. This certainty of being forgiven by God, not on account of any righteousness of his own, not because of the measure of love and holiness to which he had already attained; but looking away altogether from his own moral condition (so little satisfying in his own eyes, so much less so, therefore, in the eyes of a Holy God), and looking to Christ alone, and being bold to say, "Whatever Christ has is mine, because I am his through faith;" this certainty it was which gave him that cheerful heroic strength in which he triumphantly waged war not only against all hindrances to his 6wn personal sanctification, but against the Papal power so dominant in his time. The energy with which he was inspired by the thought, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" rested on this justifying faith. He knew it experimentally, as "the living, deliberate, reliance on God's grace, so certain that I would die for it a thousand times."
These two examples strikingly illustrate the importance of justification considered according to our Protestant doctrine as an independent act of grace. The greater the truth and intensity of the moral sense in any man, the more aware will he be of the difference between the ever-sinful and utterly imperfect creature, and the holy God, and therefore the more compelled to seek for righteousness not in his own imperfections, but in the perfections of Christ. And again, the very possibility of loving God from the heart, and because of this love striving after holiness with that freedom and joy which constitute the very essence of love—in other words, all truly moral efforts at self-improvement,—must be based upon a justification not dependent upon the measure of sanctification already attained, but independently bestowed on us as the very condition of this sanctification. For so long as I am not certain that God has pardoned me, that I have peace with him, that the sins that still so easily beset me form no wall of partition between me and my God, so long I am unable to love him with all my heart. It is the experience of the love of God as having freely forgiven me a sinner, for Christ's sake, that first calls out in me free, pure, active, and influential reciprocal love. Now this happy certainty of being forgiven is the very point at which the Catholic Church takes especial umbrage. The Council of Trent, in the ninth chapter of the sixth Session expressly states: —"Every man by reason of his own weakness and defects, must be in fear and anxiety about his state of grace, nor can any one know with infallible certainty of faith that he has received forgiveness of God."
Union Without Fusion
II. This leads us to our second question, which is this: —Will justification by faith—in other words, the certainty of being forgiven and declared righteous by God through faith in Christ's merits,—will this actually have sanctification for its result? Will it not rather paralyze moral effort, man being satisfied with immunity from God's judgment, and not careful or desirous to strive after progressive sanctification? This question may be very simply answered, if only we bear in mind that Protestantism invariably insists upon justification being dependent upon faith, and understands faith as placing us in living relation to Christ. He then only is justified who is virtually related to Christ, and when this is the case, it is wholly inconceivable that a man should remain as he is, that he should not become sanctified. For Christ, through his Spirit, lives in all the living members of the Church, which is his spiritual body, and the effect of this life is their sanctification.
That this inseparable connection between justification and sanctification may be clearly and distinctly represented without identifying or confusing the two, or in any way encroaching upon the Protestant doctrine of justification as an independent moment, Calvin has shown us in the third book of his Institutes. Thus, in the eleventh chapter, and sixth paragraph, he says, "As Christ himself cannot be divided, so these two, justification and sanctification, which we receive together from him, are alike indivisible. For whom God receives into his favour, to them he also gives the Spirit of adoption, by which power they are transformed into his image. But should we, because the heat of the sun is inseparable from its light, speak of the earth being warmed by its light, and lighted by its warmth? This comparison is well adapted to illustrate the subject, the sun both by its heat making the earth fruitful, and lighting it by its rays; here then we see a reciprocal and inseparable connection, but still reason forbids our attributing the peculiar nature of one of these processes to the other."
How closely connected justification and sanctification are, how the last is the necessary consequence of the first, shines out brightly from the testimony of St. Paul to the facts of his personal experience. "If any man be in Christ" —that is, be by faith placed in that relation to Christ to which we owe justification — "he is a new creature; old things are passed away, behold all things are become new!" (2 Cor. v.17). Now this renewal is not to be thought of as taking place at once, but the decisive beginning of it synchronizes with the being engrafted into Christ, and progresses continually in sanctification. The ruling motive in the souls of those who are justified by the death of Christ is the love first shown by the Lord himself, and now felt for him. "The love of Christ constraineth us," writes the apostle; "because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again" (2 Cor. v.14,15). This love to God and Christ, which governs the souls of the justified, is the principle of all moral life.
Again, we are not to think of this subject as though the Christian, in his own person, had a repugnance to all that was holy and good, to virtue and good works of every kind, but yet, out of personal love to God and Christ, was enabled to make the effort, and do good. Rather are goodness and holiness God's essential nature. "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John i. 5). To love God signifies, therefore, to love the source and sum of all goodness; and to love Christ signifies to love the most perfect revelation of this goodness in the form of human life. By means of this love is that prophecy fulfilled (Jer. xxxi. 31-34) which promises a new covenant between God and his people, consisting of his law put into their inward parts, and written in their minds. And according to the epistle to the Galatians, as soon as we are engrafted through faith into Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit, and he is a powerful, vital impulse within us, his fruit being "Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law."
Thus, through the Spirit of God as ruling motive and vital principle, if we surrender ourselves to him, and follow him, and in his strength overcome the impulses of the flesh, we are placed in a position, and enabled to lead a life, which is in conformity with the law: the expression of the Divine will concerning us. Thus far the apostle Paul. And now let us hear how Luther in his Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans, lays down man's moral renewal as the inevitable consequence of true and justifying faith. "Faith," he says, "is not the mere human delusion and dream that some hold it to be. And hence, when they see no improvement of life, nor good works following therefrom, and yet hear a great deal said about faith, they fall into error, and declare that faith is not sufficient, that a man must have works also in order to be holy and saved. Whereas this is only a hearing the gospel and being struck by it, and calling up thoughts by their own strength, and exclaiming, I believe. Now, this being but a human idea and imagination, which never stirs the ground of the heart, it has no influence, and no improvement follows thereupon. But Faith is a divine work in us, that changes us, and begets us anew, and kills the old Adam, and makes us different in heart and spirit, mind and strength, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. Oh! it is a living, creative, active, mighty thing this faith, to which it would be impossible not to bring forth good works continually! It does not inquire whether there are any good works to be done; before the question can be put, it has done, and ever is doing them. He who does not do these good works is an unbelieving man, who may indeed keep groping and peering about faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is, nor what good works really are, however much he may chatter about them both." And again, "Therefore (that is, by reason of his faith) the man is without constraint of any kind, ready and delighted to do good to any one, to serve any one, to suffer anything for the love and to the praise of God, who has shown him so great mercy. For it is impossible to separate good works from faith, as impossible as to separate from flame its burning and shining properties. Therefore, beware of thine own false thoughts, and of useless chatterers, who pretend to be very wise in deciding as to faith and good works, and are all the while great fools. Pray to God to work faith within thee, else thou wilt remain eternally without it, think or do what thou wilt or canst."
According to these statements we may reduce the whole of the previous argument to this alternative: Either a man is really justified by true faith, and then sanctification and good works will inevitably ensue; or sanctification and good works do not ensue, therefore there has been no true faith, and so no justification.
What, in such a case as this, a man may still call his faith, is something to which Paul positively denies the honor of such an appellation altogether, while James calls it a dead faith, a form which may indeed retain the sharply-cut features impressed on it by doctrine, but which is only a pale, cold, lifeless thing. It is —if such a name be to be given to it in any sense —a faith which, because it is dead, is perfectly powerless, and as it cannot morally renew man, so it cannot procure him justification either, because it can in no way bring him into living relation to Christ.
No Creature Merit
If enough has already been said to refute the charge of often paralyzing and impeding moral effort brought against this our doctrine of justification by faith, it still remains that we call attention to two points which prove how, on the contrary, it is this very principle that guarantees to moral effort its purity and earnestness. One of these points relates to the undeniable amount remaining, even in the regenerate, of fleshly lusts or inclination to sin. The Catholic doctrine, which makes justification dependent not upon faith, and the righteousness of Christ imputed and granted thereto, but on the actual condition of the man himself, is consequently constrained to assert of these lusts (concupiscentia) that they are not in themselves sinful, or objects of divine displeasure. According to this doctrine, they are allowed to remain in man that he may struggle against them, and the apostle Paul designates them as sinful only because they are derived from and incite to sin. But they only become positive sin by the concurrence with them of the human will. —Trid. Sess. v., Decr. 5. But how, we ask, can that which is derived from sin and incites to sin, and which is not external to the man, but internal in him, how can that be otherwise than itself sin, and therefore displeasing to God? Again, how are we to draw such a hair-breadth line of demarcation between lust and will? If a man feels conscious of some intensely ardent desire, even if it be never shaped by a formal act of the will into a bad resolve or purpose, still, must not the will be in a measure influenced and implicated? Where does the domain of mere desire end, and that of the will begin? How easy, how almost unavoidable, the temptation to draw the line of distinction in our own favour, and to set down many lesser sins of the will to the score of mere lust or inclination! Whereas, according to Protestant principles, the regenerate man, although waging the genuine warfare of the Spirit against the flesh, and advancing in sanctification, yet owes his justification, in God's sight, neither to his individual conduct nor character, but to that relation to Christ into which he has been brought by faith, and owing to which Christ's perfect righteousness is imputed to him. The more pure and earnest therefore, the more ideal (to use a modern expression) can he now be in the work of sanctification set before him. His aim is not merely to prevent the will from formally coinciding with the evil desire, but to kill that very desire. He sorrows for and regrets not only every actual sin of thought, deed, or word, into which he falls, and which must deeply grieve him as being symptomatic of a relapse into his old disease; but every rising of a sinful desire excites in him sorrow and repentance, as symptomatic of that diseased nature that still cleaves to him, as something that must be in him most especially displeasing to God, and he feels himself so much the more bound to cling with all his energy to Christ, who of God is made to us both righteousness and sanctification.
The second point touches the merit of good works. We need here only to contrast the two doctrines to see on which side the essential nature of morality—unselfish love in all its purity and profundity—is best guarded. According to the Catholic doctrine, no doubt, all good that the regenerate soul is able to do, is in so far the gift of grace that it can only be done in the power of the Holy Ghost, which God has bestowed for Christ's sake. But by means of this gift (so Catholics teach), a man is able to do such good works as satisfy the divine law as regards this life, and, in the true sense of the word, deserve increase of grace, eternal life, and increase of heavenly glory. And from this ground there has sprung the doctrine of supererogatory merits, which, although not formally sanctioned by the Catholic Church, has still less been repudiated by her, but, on the contrary, practically acknowledged by the system of indulgences. This doctrine implies (so are Catholics taught) that they who not only do what the divine law requires, but who also follow the so-called evangelical counsels, more particularly as to voluntary poverty, celibacy, penances, etc., performing so many of these good works that the Church canonizes them, that is, enrolls them among the saints,—that these have deserved more grace than they need for themselves, and therefore these works of supererogation, united with the equally supererogatory merits of Christ, form a fund, a treasury of merit, out of which the Church has the power of drawing indulgences, that is, of remitting to her members the penances or fasts, or temporal obligations of any kind, that would otherwise be necessary. This sketch of the Catholic doctrine will at once convince you how dubious it is in general, and also how it degrades the true nature of vital and inward morality, to suppose that there can be any merit in man in the sight of a holy God. If the doctrine of creature merit before a God who is absolutely almighty, and to whose love and mercy we owe all we have, if the idea that He can be indebted in any way to us, be wholly untenable, still more hopeless must the case seem when we remember that he is a holy God, in whose sight our best works are impure and imperfect.
Nor, again, does our individual character ever reach such conformity with the divine law, i.e., the holy law of God, as to empower us to say that we have deserved eternal life and heavenly happiness. To acknowledge this in sincerity and humility, to confess the imperfection and sinfulness of all they do and are, and thus to be morally correct and just in their estimate of themselves, is rendered imperative by conscience upon all who are justified by faith. While building confidently upon Christ and his perfect righteousness, they disclaim all merit of their own in the sight of God. The good works they do are done not to merit eternal life, but out of thankful love to God who has given them eternal life in Christ. And while they gratefully allow that the Holy Scriptures do indeed promise a reward to good works, they look upon this reward not as a right or a thing deserved, but only as a happy result or consequence. If they persevere in faith and holiness to the end, the consequence will indeed be their blessedness in eternity; but this does not imply that they have deserved eternal blessedness. If in this life they grow in grace, and thus in peace and true happiness, they see in this no merit of their own, they only exclaim with the apostle: "Being made free from sin, and become servants to God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." And if they experience the joy of seeing that their labor is not in vain in the Lord, but that what they do the Lord maketh it to prosper, they neither speak nor think of merit of their own, but give praise to God, who has used such imperfect instruments and feeble efforts to accomplish his gracious ends. Thus the Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, "Have then our good works no merit, since God rewards them in this life and that to come?" by the simple truthful words, "This reward is not of merit but of grace." Or to put the same thought into modern language, we may say that, according to the Protestant conception, The reward of good works is the consequence of the grace shown on the one side, conditioned by the consequence of Faith on the other side.
I have thus endeavoured to answer both questions brought before us by our subject, and now that I have come to an end, I see too plainly how little exhaustive my treatment of it has been. God grant that I may at least have succeeded in some measure in making you feel how this doctrine of justification by faith alone truly and completely satisfies not only the requirements of deep and logical reasoning, but more especially the deeper moral need of reconciliation with God, and renewal in his image. If I have so succeeded, I may confidently close this lecture by the entreaty that, as we all have cause to hold fast the precious privileges of various kinds conferred on us by the Reformation, so from henceforth this doctrine of justification by faith may be cherished by us as having been the very lifeblood of that Reformation, and as being, in its practical application, the chief jewel of our evangelical Church.