Justification by Faith Alone

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New Confusions for Old: Rome and Justification by Roger Wagner


Recent defenders of Rome’s doctrine of justification are making the same mistaken accusations today as did their predecessors in the sixteenth century. Rome is still not listening to the Scripture.

I. Introduction
In his recent book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating begins the preface by saying,

Few orthodox Catholics can imagine themselves leaving their religion for another. If, in the disorientation that comes between sleep and wakefulness, they imagine changing their spiritual allegiance, they see themselves waving fond farewell to Rome…and walking but a short distance to something Romelike.[1]

Later on the same page, Keating continues,

What few practicing Catholics can imagine is that they might chuck Catholicism for something like fundamentalism, to which they are not drawn at all. Still, they know that people of their acquaintance, people from their own parishes, have made the transition, and are seemingly none the worse for wear.[2]

He presses his concern on the next page, warning,

This lack of sympathy with the bare possibility of conversion to fundamentalism may be one reason the fundamentalism problem is misunderstood by Catholics. After all, it is hard to understand something that is not taken seriously. But the allure of fundamentalism should be taken seriously…[3]

If one were to simply switch the places of the two parties mentioned in the discussion above, one might well express a growing concern among fundamentalist, evangelical, and Reformed Protestants today in the same terms. While it might seem unthinkable, there has been a growing interest in Catholicism within evangelical and Reformed circles in recent years. This interest has led to some notable “conversions” among the evangelical leadership — one can remember the “bombshell” that hit the Christianity Today world several years ago with the news of the “conversion” to Rome of noted author and teacher, Thomas Howard. This growing interest in Catholicism has added new vitality and credibility to efforts toward a rapprochement between Protestants and the Vatican. And, what is of more concern to the present writer, is that in this resurgence of Catholicism we have even seen some Reformed and Presbyterian ministers and laymen embrace the doctrine and life of Romanism.[4]

Keating’s warning, then, is equally appropriate if addressed to evangelical and Reformed Protestants — the attractiveness of Rome, however unimaginable to 20th century Protestants, remains very strong, and the threat of a “return to Rome” movement needs to be taken as seriously in our day as it was in the days of the Reformation.

One serious problem facing evangelicals and Reformed Christians today is that many of them have become ill-equipped to face the challenge of “converted Protestants” seeking to win other evangelicals over to their new way of thinking. For many Protestants, Romanism seems a dead issue. The Protestant Reformation finished the controversy once and for all as far as they are concerned. Many have become uninformed regarding the theology and piety, as well as the ecclesiastical structures and practices, of the Roman Catholic Church.[5] Consequently, they may fall easy prey to the often winsome and even “evangelical-sounding” Romanist who is seeking to persuade them to “return to the fold of the true church.” Recent confrontations between formerly-evangelical or -Reformed spokesmen for Rome, on the one hand, and proponents of traditional Protestantism, on the other, have pointed up the problem in fairly graphic ways. [6]

Nor are these aggressive Catholics with (allegedly) new answers gaining a hearing by presenting an expurgated version of Romanist theology and piety. They are more than willing to believe and defend all the major tenants of traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice — including papal infallibility, justification by faith and works, the special reverence of Mary and the saints, and traditional Roman sacerdotalism — all of which historically have been serious stumbling-blocks to thoughtful Protestants.
II. The Debate Over Justification
The eagerness on the part of the new defenders of Rome to address evangelical Protestants has led to a renewed debate over the Romanist doctrine of justification as formulated by the Council of Trent (Sixth Session, 1547) and explained by Roman Catholic theologians before and since. The purpose of this present article is to examine recent defenses of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, especially those put forth by way of appeal to evangelical Protestants, in the light of the Scripture and the historical Protestant formulations of the doctrine. This, of course, is not a new debate, and many defenders of the evangelical and Reformed Protestant doctrine of justification who have been far more able than the present writer have repeatedly addressed the question in great detail. [7]

Indeed, one wonders what can be contributed at this stage in the debate that will be insightful and helpful, when the ground has been covered so well many times before. One is spurred on to make the effort, however, in part by the fact that some of these contemporary proponents of the Romanist doctrine of justification by faith and works have come to it against the background of what we must presume was an understanding from the inside of the Protestant doctrine.

Some of these defenders claim the special right to be heard by other evangelicals on that basis. They claim that they have asked the leading lights among the heirs of Calvin and Luther (in print and in person) for answers to their questions and concerns about justification (and other doctrines) and that they have not been given satisfactory answers.[8] This, of course, raises the question of whether the past discussions of the Reformation/Rome debate over justification have in fact been inadequate as answers to these men’s concerns, or if it is rather the case that the “converts” have simply been unteachable in light of cogent Biblical argumentation. The only effective way to evaluate that is to review the evangelical and Reformed Protestant understanding of justification in light of the recent discussions by converts to Rome from the ranks of evangelicalism.
III. Features of Recent “Evangelical” Defenses of the Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification
In reading and listening to the recent advocates of the traditional Romanist view of justification, one is struck by several features, and it is worth noting them before we proceed to re-examine the Biblical doctrine of justification.
A. The Tempting Evangelical Ring
First, there is a decided evangelical “ring” to the defenses made by former Protestants. Listen to Scott Hahn, for example:

The Catholic Church does not teach legalism. If individual Catholics you meet believe that through their own legalistic works-righteousness they can buy their way into heaven, or merit everything on their own, you tell them to go back to their church, back to the Scripture, back to their councils, and change their minds. It isn’t works righteousness, it isn’t striking a bargain or a deal with God at all. It’s God having His way in us by filling us with His life, His love, His power. So God transforms children of the devil into children of God — not just by mere legal decree, but by giving us Christ in His Sonship. Therefore, according to the Roman Catholic Church, each and every deed I do that is pleasing to God is nothing other than the work of Christ active in me through the power of the Holy Spirit.[9]

Certainly much of this language sounds pleasing to evangelical Protestant ears. Indeed, some of these statements could well be made by “card-carrying” evangelicals.

In terms of the debate, this evangelical flavor makes the appeal of these Catholics so potentially winning to Protestant audiences. Efforts to remove the language of “works,” “self-righteousness,” and “merit”[10] goes a long way to putting evangelical listeners at ease. But, leaving the rhetoric to one side, the more telling question is whether or not their understanding of the nature of justification actually removes the reality of merit and works leading to self-righteous justification. This question remains to be evaluated Biblically. On the surface level, however, the contemporary defenses of the doctrine of justification by adherents of Rome certainly sound much better than older formulations of the defense of the same doctrine.[11]
B. Missing the Antithesis
A second notable feature of recent defenses of Roman Catholic justification is the almost exclusive concentration on the question of the role of good works in justification. [12] As we will see below, debate on this question, as important as it is, does not adequately focus the antithesis between the Roman and Protestant doctrines of justification. Much of what is said about the necessity of good works to justification can be, and has been, endorsed by Protestants. Marshner appears to admit as much.

A second stage is the very transition from death to life, which is the first stage of justification proper. Here the parties are at one in saying “sola fide,” though they seem to mean different things by it. Protestants tend to mean that, at this stage, by the grace of God, man’s act of faith is the sole act required of him; Catholics mean that faith is the beginning, foundation and root of all justification, since only faith makes possible the acts of hope and charity (i.e. love-for-God) which are also required. However, since most Protestants have a broad notion of the act of faith, whereby it includes elements of hope and love, it is often hard to tell how far the difference on this point is real and how far it is a matter of words.[13]

Without examining Marshner’s comments in detail, we simply note at this point that he at least is willing to grant that “most Protestants have a broad notion of the act of faith, whereby it includes elements of hope and love.” This “love” includes the “good works” of grateful obedience to God which contemporary defenders of justification by faith and works are eager to emphasize.

If both Protestants and Roman Catholics can speak of the “necessity” of good works, one is left with the conclusion, either that the whole debate has, in fact, been a misunderstanding (as some have said), or that the real issue lies elsewhere. We will argue the latter in our discussion below. The exact character of that “necessity” must be precisely understood in Biblical terms.

Before we leave this point, something more needs to be said about the way in which the Romanist doctrine of justification is currently being defended by former evangelicals. Not all are willing, as Marshner is, to grant that the Protestant position does allow for, indeed requires, good works in the life of the justified believer. In several of the discussions under consideration, there is an all too frequent caricature of the Protestant doctrine, suggesting that, since the Protestant rejects good works as meritorious (or quasi-meritorious), he is thereby denying any importance (or “necessity”) of good works to justification. Having set up such a straw man, proponents of Rome’s doctrine of justification have an easy time pointing out Scriptures that clearly teach the necessity of subjective renewal and transformation, grateful obedience, and personal holiness as part and parcel of justification. Most notably they draw attention to Mt. 7:21-23 and James 2:20-24.

That such a portrayal of Protestant doctrine is a caricature is evident from John Murray’s comments (which are now 35 years old!):

It is an old and time-worn objection that this doctrine ministers to license and looseness. Only those who know not the power of the gospel will plead such misconception. Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Justification is not all that is embraced in the gospel of redeeming grace. Christ is a complete Saviour and it is not justification alone that the believing sinner possesses in him. And faith is not the only response in the heart of him who has entrusted himself to Christ for salvation. Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (cf. Gal. 5:6). And faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:17-20). It is living faith that justifies and living faith unites to Christ both in the virtue of his death and in the power of his resurrection. No one has entrusted himself to Christ for deliverance from the guilt of sin who has not also entrusted himself to him for deliverance from the power of sin. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:1,2).[14]

Roman Catholic arguments which overlook the vital role of obedient holiness embraced by Protestants in the application of redemption are, at best, misleading. At worst, they are dishonest and deceitful. Protestants do, and have always, acknowledged the necessity of good works to salvation. Some have even been willing to speak of the necessity of good works to justification (in light of the emphasis of James 2),[15] though that has made other Protestants somewhat nervous. Be that as it may, none have suggested that good works are irrelevant to the salvation of men. What they have not been willing to do is identify good works, and the supposed merit arising therefrom, as the ground (or supplement to the ground) of justification, as Rome has always contended. To do so would compromise the uniqueness and sufficiency of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.[16]

Further, Protestants have emphasized that the salvation of men involves both the objective (judicial) pardon and acceptance of the sinner as righteous in Christ, on the one hand, and the subjective transformation of the sinner in holiness — a renewal in the image of Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; cf. Eph. 2:10; etc.). These two dimensions (corresponding in evangelical parlance to “justification” and “regeneration”/”sanctification”) while distinguished from one another have never been separated from one another, as if one could take place without the other.[17]

Some of the contemporary advocates of Roman Catholic justification fail to acknowledge these important distinctions. What makes such failure unforgivable in the present context of debate is that, as former evangelical Protestants, these men know better. It is not a matter of ignorance but of the willful (and deceitful?) suppression of the knowledge of important elements in the doctrinal position they are opposing. This makes for more than an argumentative weakness. It is a demonstration of spiritual blindness which is culpable (Rom. 1:18,21,28).
C. The Absence of Exegesis
In addition to the problem of these argumentative red herrings, there is a third, more substantial, characteristic weakness with recent Roman Catholic defenses of justification. This substantial weakness is the absence of any careful exegesis of the relevant passages on justification. These defenders, with their almost exclusive focus on the place of good works in salvation, fail to exegete the great passages that deal specifically with the doctrine of justification, particularly those passages in Romans and in Galatians. While these texts have been treated in the past by some of the exponents of the Romanist position, they are passed over by many of the more recent defenders.

For example, Hahn, in his debate with Knudsen does not mention, much less exegete, a single one of the classical New Testament texts on justification.[18] Neither does Peter Kreeft.[19] Karl Keating spends his time discussing the matter of assurance and its relationship to faith and justification.[20] William Marshner does a little better.[21] He at least wants to attempt to “break down that lively conviction by which the Protestant feels that St. Paul is his home turf,” and wants to try to demonstrate “that St. Paul’s real position is far closer to that of Trent than to that of Luther.”[22] He therefore addresses himself to some of the Pauline material, but his exegesis is partial and superficial at best.

Certainly it is not necessary that every theologian or polemicist deal with all the questions or arguments relevant to the subject under discussion. But for contemporary Roman apologists to fail to mention or refute the substantial exegetical considerations which appear to contradict the Romanist view of justification is much more than a significant oversight. It amounts to a total failure of the Romanist position. Unanswered, the exegetical case expounded by the classical defenders of the Protestant view stands in all its clarity and Biblical authority.

This failure is especially telling in that these defenders, some of whom are themselves former evangelicals, are (no doubt) keenly aware of the massive exegetical and theological evidence that has been put forth by the Protestant side in defending their understanding of justification by faith. Therefore, the decision by the current popular defenders of Romanism to pass over this corpus of Biblical argumentation suggests that they find it safer to ignore it than confront it head-on, and refute it.

In this same connection, we also note the absence of any serious attempt on the part of these (and other earlier) Romanist defenders of justification by faith and works to conform their theological formulations to either Biblical language or thought-forms. Reading the arguments put forward since Trent (and before), one is aware that an alien theological system is being imposed upon Scripture and that exegesis and theological argument are being pressed to fit the system, rather than letting the words and ideas of Scripture itself give rise to the theological system.
D. Downplaying Sacerdotalism
A fourth characteristic of these recent defenses is a failure to face up to the ecclesiastical and sacramental dimensions of Roman Catholic dogma. Though it is never denied, the central and indispensable role of the Roman Church and its sacraments — particularly the sacraments of baptism and penance — is not explained forthrightly in connection with the discussions of justification. It is easy enough to see why Catholic apologists address such issues in discussions designed to appeal to Protestants. The strong sacerdotal dimensions of Roman Catholic justification would certainly be a stumbling-block to many would-be converts from Protestantism. It is more appealing to talk in generalities about God’s grace, the adoption of sinners so that they become part of God’s family, and the glories of partaking in the unique sonship of Christ, than to clutter up these mystical wonders with talk of a regeneration which cannot be accomplished apart from Roman baptism. Defenders of Rome are somewhat coy about acknowledging the fact (in their discussions of justification) that without auricular confession and the reception of priestly absolution in connection with acts of satisfaction (vital elements of the Roman “sacrament” of penance or reconciliation), one cannot participate in the grace of justification.[23]

Today, just as during the debates of the Reformation, Roman Catholic theology maintains that without the mediatorial office of the Roman Church the sinner is distanced from divine grace and remains lost in sin and subject to the condemnation of God. Those who are attracted to the new “evangelical” sounds of the “gospel” according to Rome set forth by Keating, Kreeft, Hahn, and others, had better realize that they need to get connected with a duly-consecrated priest and the sacraments of the Roman Church, or else they will be left under condemnation, grasping for an ephemeral grace that remains out of reach. There is still something that stands between the sinner and the Savior. Rome has always claimed for itself that unique role. It continues to do so.
E. Trivializing Judicial Pardon
One fifth, and final, observation about the characteristic flavor of recent discussions of justification by ex-Protestants and others will prepare us to examine the Biblical teaching itself. That characteristic is the consistent downplaying of the reality and importance of judicial pardon. While some defenders pay lip-service in passing to the judicial pardon of sinners as an aspect (or precondition) of justification, they repeatedly describe judicial pardon with minimizing epithets like, “mere,” “only,” “simply,” etc. Karl Keating says, “the Reformers saw justification as a mere legal act by which God declares the sinner to be meriting heaven even though he remains in fact unjust and sinful”[24] It is “only an external application of Christ’s justice.”[25] The Romanist doctrine, by way of contrast, sees justification as a “true eradication of sin and a true sanctification and renewal.” Sinners become “actually good,” thereby “meriting” heaven.[26] Similarly, Scott Hahn alleges that the Protestant view makes justification “just simply a legal exchange.”[27] According to Marshner, the view of the Protestant Reformers means,

…our “justification” can no longer be conceived as a real change in us; it will have to become a sheer declaration on God’s part, e.g. a declaration that, thanks to the work of Christ, He will henceforth consider us as just, even though we remain inwardly the sinners we always were. Hence, the Protestant doctrine of “forensic” or “extrinsic” justification. Now watch what happens to our own act of faith: it ceases to be the foundational act of an interior renewal and becomes a mere requirement, devoid of any salvific power in its own right, which God arbitrarily sets as the condition on which He will declare us just. Whereupon watch what happens to our good works: they cease to be the vital acts wherein an ontologically real “new life” consists and manifests itself; they become mere human responses to divine mercy — nice, but totally irrelevant to our justification — or else they become zombie-like motions produced in us by irresistible divine impulses, whereby God exhibits His glory in His elect.[28]

Notice in these quotations the sustained contrast between the concepts of “legal,” on the one hand, and “real,” on the other. Forensic justification, according to Rome, is “sheer declaration.” It is a legal fiction — God “will henceforth consider us as just,” though we are not really just, for we “remain inwardly the sinners we always were.” God acts “arbitrarily” with respect to the satisfaction of His justice.

This kind of language, used in the interest of emphasizing the importance of the inner transformation which results from the infusion of divine grace, in fact serves to trivialize divine pardon. This is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that Rome has always tried to get as much mileage as possible out of the spiritual terrorism afforded by graphic visions and thoughts of Final Judgment. One need only think of the visual horrors of Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. The second section of the traditional Romanist “Requiem” (a mass for the dead), the Dies irae (“day of wrath”), is another portrait of the fearful realities of judgment facing the sinner. It begins,

The day of wrath, that day shall
dissolve the world in ash, as
David prophesied with the Sibyl.

What trembling shall there be
when the judge shall come
Who shall thresh out all thoroughly…

Death and Nature shall be astounded
when creation rises again
to answer to the Judge…

And therefore when the Judge shall sit,
whatsoever is hidden shall be manifest;
and naught shall remain unavenged…

Soon follows the desperate cry of the guilty sinner,

And what shall I say in my misery?
Whom shall I ask to be my advocate,
when scarcely the just may be without fear?

The horror of divine judgment is almost palpable (especially when conveyed, for example, by Berlioz’ or Verdi’s musical language!). Such fear, according to traditional Roman Catholicism, may move the sinner to the beginnings of faith. For that reason fear ought to be, and is, cultivated. But then the Roman apologist for justification by faith and works enters to declare to this terrified sinner facing the reality of the eternal wrath of the holy God that the pardon and forgiveness which they seek is “only an external application of Christ’s justice,” it is “just simply a legal exchange.” The quaking sinner looking for a sure resting-place for his faith is told to look away from the pardon of God, and the sacrifice of Christ which satisfied divine justice. They are only legal; they are insufficient.[29] The sinner is told to look elsewhere — he is told to look to himself!!

Is this “gospel?” Is this “good news” to the sinner’s ear. Is it not rather blasphemy?[30] By thus trivializing God’s forgiveness (a legal category), the Romanist dogma has the effect of minimizing with it the divine justice that demands such pardon, and, most importantly, the Savior who satisfied the holy demands of that divine justice to secure for sinners that full and free pardon.
VI. Toward a Biblical Appreciation of Justification
We turn at last to a brief review of the Biblical doctrine of justification as articulated repeatedly by the greatest scholars of the Reformation and their heirs for nearly 500 years. As already mentioned, it is not my intention to rehearse the Protestant doctrine in detail. There is no need to — it has been proclaimed and explained faithfully and ably by many right down to the present day. The contemporary advocates of the Roman view have raised no new or telling objections to the view of the Reformers. They have simply restated the traditional position of Rome (before and after Trent).

Having examined some of the characteristics of their defenses above, we will now conclude this article with an overview of the main lines of argument in favor of the Protestant understanding of justification. For this summary review, I will be relying on the work of John Murray, because he is both a recent and one of the most able defenders of the doctrine of justification by faith. He has imbibed the rich Protestant tradition of exposition and his book, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, is readily available to the interested reader.
A. Justification is Forensic
Justification is forensic in character. In order to properly understand the Biblical teaching on justification, one must grasp it in the ethical categories in which Scripture sets it forth. Rome has made a prolonged effort to deny — or at least minimize — the legal (forensic) terms with which the Reformation understood the doctrine of justification. Instead they have stressed that justification must be understood in metaphysical terms. This confusion of the metaphysical with the ethical has been characteristic of Rome’s interpretation of both the fall of man and his redemption. Recent defenders of the Roman view continue to press the same point. Marshner admits that the controversy between Rome and the Reformation over the nature of divine grace was (in part) a “metaphysical quarrel.”[31] He speaks of grace as an “elevation of our nature” which was also the case before the Fall.[32] Grace is “a quality of man which is a property of God,” and “in order to cope with such an entity, one needs a sophisticated metaphysics of participation.”[33]

When we see clearly this preference for the metaphysical over the ethical, we can better understand the previously-mentioned antithesis between the “legal” and the “real” in Romanist defenses. “Ontic grace” is “a real entity in man.”[34] If one fails to understand this, Marshner declares, “the whole Catholic understanding of justification makes no sense.”[35] He is right. For that reason he charges the Reformers with denying the existence of this metaphysical “sanctifying grace.” He alleges that, because of their nominalistic assumptions,” they found that course “simpler.”[36]

Here Marshner misses the point. Luther and Calvin did not choose the “simpler” way. Rather, they determined to explicate the doctrine of justification in the ethical terms in which Scripture reveals it. They understood clearly that redemption, as revealed in Scripture, is not a metaphysical transformation, but an ethical one. The “Creator-creature distinction” which is foundational to Biblical metaphysics and revelation remains firmly in place throughout God’s plan of salvation. The Romanist is still quite confused on this matter, and until he will allow himself to think God’s thoughts after Him — i.e., let the Bible itself shape his categories of understanding — he will remain confused.[37]

If the Biblical terminology of justification is examined — in both the Old and New Testaments — one sees forensic, juridical language. With very few exceptions the legal concept of “a declaration or vindication of righteousness” is the meaning of the Biblical terms for justification.[38] It is only by wresting the Scriptures that these terms can be forced into consistency with the metaphysical description of justification demanded by Romanist dogma. Many of the contemporary defenders of that dogma have not even attempted to deal with the texts specifically related to justification. Can anyone seriously wonder why?

Protestants have repeatedly pointed out that even if one grants that justification is based on the inherent righteousness (or on the “infused-grace”-produced righteousness) of the person justified, the act of justification can, nevertheless, be nothing other than declarative. Just as “condemn” cannot mean “to make sinful or criminal” so “justify” (its consistent Biblical antithesis) cannot mean “to make just or righteous.”[39 ]The categories are inescapably ethical and legal, not metaphysical.
B. Justification is Grounded in Christ, Not Faith or Works
The central point at issue between the Roman and Reformation views of justification concerns its ground. It has already been noted that recent discussions have not succeeded in sharply focusing the central antithesis between the Protestant and Roman Catholic positions on justification. The basic question in dispute is not the necessity of good works, though that question is important and must be addressed in the broader discussion of justification. Rather it is the question of what constitutes the ground of justification — the foundation upon which God accepts the sinner as righteous in His sight.

Romanists argue that the ground of justification is faith in Christ[40] plus a person’s own good works (wrought in the power of God’s grace infused into the person who receives baptism). As Keating says, “[God] did his part, and now we have to cooperate by doing ours.”[41] Some Protestants, particularly of the Arminian stripe, substitute faith alone for faith and works as the ground of justification. Faith, on this construction, is seen as accepted by God in lieu of obedience to the Law as the ground of justification. But we must argue, with Luther and Calvin, that neither faith nor good works are the ground of justification.

Contra Rome we must say that the basis of one’s justification cannot be one’s own righteousness, even if it were produced in cooperation with the grace of God (and is thus in some sense a “gift” of God). As John Murray argues,

A righteousness wrought in us, even though it were perfect and eliminated all future sin, would not measure up to the requirements of the full and irrevocable justification which the Scripture represents justification to be. Such a righteousness would not obliterate the sin and unrighteousness of the past and the condemnation resting upon us for our past sin. But justification includes the remission of all sin and condemnation. Consequently the righteousness which is the basis of such justification must be one that will take care of past sin as well as provide for the future. Inwrought righteousness does not measure up to this need.[42]

This truth is further borne out by the fact that the gospel reveals the grace and mercy of God specifically in the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; cf. 3:21-26). “The justification with which we are now concerned, however, is God’s justification of the ungodly. It is not the justification of persons who are righteous but of persons who are wicked and, therefore, of persons who are under God’s condemnation and curse.”[43] Thus, Biblical justification cannot be based — in whole or in part — on the righteousness of the one justified. Those who are justified are said to be sinners and must be declared just on the basis of the righteousness of another.

On the other hand, contra Arminianism, we must point out that human faith is just as tainted as human works, and is therefore unsatisfactory as a ground for full and free justification. Even if it were argued — along the lines of Rome — that faith was the product of the prior workings of God’s grace in a person’s heart, it would still not answer to God’s demand for a perfect, indeed a divine righteousness as the only basis upon which a sinner can be reckoned just before God.[44] The sinner must look away from himself — his faith and his good works — and look to Christ as the only sure foundation for his hope of justification before God.

The ground of justification, according to Scripture’s consistent testimony is nothing less than the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ — expressed in His “active obedience” (whereby He perfectly kept the commandments of the Father in exhaustive detail from the heart) and His “passive obedience” (whereby He fully satisfied the penal liability for broken law which justly stands against His peoples). According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Q/A#33). “Only for the righteousness of Christ.” Here we discover the only true resting-place for saving faith. Here alone is there a righteousness sufficient to our need for justification. “The righteousness of Christ is the righteousness of his perfect obedience, a righteousness undefiled and undefilable, a righteousness which not only warrants the justification of the ungodly but one that necessarily elicits and constrains such justification. God cannot but accept into his favor those who are invested with the righteousness of his own Son. [45]
C. Justification is Declarative and Constitutive
Justification is not merely a legal fiction, but a judgment in truth. If the ground of justification is the righteousness of another, of Jesus Christ, then are the Romanists right in charging that in the Protestant view justification is nothing more than a “legal fiction.”[46] Does God simply call “righteous” those who are not righteous, even though to do so would be to violate His own holy law for judges (e.g.., Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15)? Not at all. Here we must recognize the way in which the Protestant doctrine draws attention to the reality of imputation, and to the fact that justification is both (to use Murray’s words) “declarative” and “constitutive.”

“Imputation,” in the Biblical sense, refers to the legal accounting of one person’s righteousness or sin to another. It presupposes a relationship of covenantal representation between those who are parties to the imputation.[47] By virtue of this representation, sin and guilt or righteousness and justification can be imputed from one to the other. In Scripture, imputation is involved in three particular situations: (1) the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity in the so-called “covenant of works,” (2) the imputation of the sins of His people to Christ as their representative Savior, and (3) the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people as the ground of justification.[48] The classic text concerning imputation is Rom. 5:12-21.

Rome has traditionally sought to suppress the teaching of Scripture on imputation in favor of its emphasis upon infused grace and the resulting subjective transformation in an individual’s life. Only this will bring about “a true eradication of sin and a true sanctification and renewal” so that the soul becomes objectively pleasing to God and so merits heaven.”[49] This alone will suffice for real justification. While there may appear some minimal initial plausibility to this notion when applied to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people, it will never fit the other side of the imputation transaction. Are we to understand that the imputation of our sin and guilt to our Savior involved the infusion of some “sin-principle” (the negation of grace) into Him, with the result that He was subjectively transformed into a sinner for us? The notion is as preposterous as it is blasphemous! Even Rome has to admit as much.

Rome’s zeal for its metaphysical categories cannot be applied in the several ways demanded by the Biblical revelation concerning justification. Those categories must therefore be rejected. Instead, we must understand that, by virtue of our relationship to Christ as the “last Adam,” and as the covenantal “head” of His people, we legally, but nevertheless most truly, receive His righteousness as our own through imputation. In the same way, through the reality of imputation, Jesus Christ Himself bore our sins and guilt in His body on the cross of Calvary (I Pet. 2:24). As a result of His death for us, the indictment from the bench of the heavenly Judge of all the earth, that justly stood against us, has been taken away (Col. 2:14). These are wonderful, gracious realities. They are legal and covenantal realities. They are — praise God! — realities that will stand the test of the great Dies irae, when all flesh will stand before God for the Final Judgment. “Then, Lord, shall I fully know, not till then, how much I owe.”

John Murray was concerned to point out that there was a potential danger in the Protestant emphasis on justification as a declarative act. The danger he saw was that the church would overlook the fact that justification is also revealed in Scripture as a constitutive act. “For as through the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be constituted righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Herein is to be seen the unique glory and grace of God’s act of justification.

The peculiarity of God’s action consists in this that he causes to be the righteous state or relation which is declared to be. We must remember that justification is always forensic or judicial. Therefore what God does in this case is that he constitutes the new and righteous judicial relation as well as declares this new relation to be. He constitutes the ungodly righteous, and consequently can declare them to be righteous. In the justification of sinners there is a constitutive act as well as a declarative. Or, if we will, we may say that the declarative act of God in the justification of the ungodly is constitutive. In this consists its incomparable character.[50]

Justification is both a declarative and a constitutive act of God’s free grace. It is constitutive in order that it may be truly declarative. God must constitute the new relationship as well as declare it to be. The constitutive act consists in the imputation to us of the obedience and righteousness of Christ. The obedience of Christ must therefore be regarded as the ground of justification; it is the righteousness which God not only takes into account but reckons to our account when he justifies the ungodly.[51]

Such is the reality of justification. Such an understanding of the Biblical doctrine should have silenced the charges of “mere legalities” long ago, but as we have seen, it has not. The same accusations are being made against the forensic character of justification today as in the sixteenth century.[52] Rome is still not listening to the Scripture.
D. Justification is Direct Union With Christ
Justification is enjoyed by the believer in union with Christ. The Roman Catholic Church claims a unique mediatorial role in the justification of sinners — it is the exclusive channel of divine grace through its priesthood and sacraments. Justifying (or sanctifying) grace is received through baptism, and is “improved” by means of the sacrament of penance, the post-baptismal sacrament of reconciliation. Through penance — with its confessions and works of satisfaction — the sinner receives grace and forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. Without penance, even the baptized soul remains unforgiven for whatever mortal sins it may have committed, and, thus unshriven, cannot stand in the Day of Judgment. Such a person is not justified.

As we have already noticed, recent defenders of the Romanist view of justification do not make much of this indispensable sacerdotal element, at least in their public declarations and writings on justification aimed at Protestant audiences. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable element in their understanding of justification. In their polemic against the Protestant view, they give the impression — by drawing attention to the “merely” legal, external, objective emphasis of the Reformational view of justification — that the Protestant system is impersonal, a system in which the grace of God cannot be brought effectually into the life of the sinner. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

It is true that the Reformation denied the mediatorial role of the church claimed by Rome. But they did not do this so as to leave the sinner at a distance from God and His saving grace. On the contrary, they rejected the mediatorial work of the church in favor of a renewed emphasis upon the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ. They claimed that the Roman system of priestly intermediaries and sacramentalism in fact distanced sinners from Christ rather than bringing them closer to Him. The Pope and his priestly minions, the saints, and Mary obscured the sinner’s sense of the presence of Christ. For all of this ecclesiolatry, they substituted the Biblical emphasis on the nearness of God through Christ. The sinner did not need an earthly intermediary. He already had the perfect, indeed the only, true mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (I Tim. 2:5). As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Reformers lifted up Jesus the Savior — through the preaching of “Christ crucified” — and men and women who looked unto Him in faith lived (John 3:14-15).

The Protestant doctrine of full and free justification — with its proper Biblical emphasis on the forensic and covenantal character of that justification — cannot be properly appreciated apart from the further Biblical teachings (also emphasized in a new way by the Reformers) concerning union with Christ and the internal work of the Holy Spirit in the application of redemption to the life and experience of the redeemed sinner. While further discussion of the latter would carry us too far beyond the scope of our concern in this essay, I do want to close our review of the Protestant doctrine of justification with a word or two about the former — union with Christ.

The Bible teaches us that Christ is our great substitute. He has acted in our stead to secure the blessings of the covenant forfeited by Adam in his sin. Jesus has come to bring forgiveness and new, eternal life in fellowship with God to sinners who put their trust in Him. This is the “good news.” But the greatest glory of salvation is that we do not enjoy those covenant blessings in abstraction from the beloved Person who gives them to us. On the contrary, these mercies are experienced by the believer “in union with Christ.” Jesus came into the world not simply to give us blessings, but to give us Himself. He came to bring to its eschatological realization — in all its depth and fullness — the ancient promise of the covenant — “I will be their God, and they will be my people, and I will dwell with them.” Jesus does this in His own person, and through the relationship He graciously creates with those who love and trust Him. Who would have ever guessed that the mystery of that central covenant blessing, when finally revealed, would be nothing less than “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27)?

It is this union with Christ that Calvin (and others in the Reformation) brought into sharp focus in connection with the Biblical reality of justification. He declared,

We deny that good works have any share in justification, but claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous. For if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ, and, at the same time, Christ never is where his Spirit is not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration. Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the apostle teaches (I Cor. 1:30), has been given to us for justification and for sanctification.[53]

Quotations such as this from Calvin and others could be multiplied, but this one shows the way in which Calvin saw union with Christ, not as the logical foundation or starting-point of God’s redemptive work for sinners, but as the living, personal center. Regeneration, justification, sanctification, adoption, etc. are not just so many entrees on the “smorgasbord-table” of redemption. They are rather personally bound up with Christ Himself. As Calvin points out, it is Jesus who is made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (I Cor. 1:30). These spiritual blessings are thus received and enjoyed by the believer in union with the Savior. The fear of Rome that the Protestant doctrine of justification would lead to an undervaluation of obedience and purity in the Christian life, to whatever extent it was sincere and legitimate, arose from a failure to understand the Protestant teaching as a whole. That is why the Reformers were zealous to emphasize it over and over again. Their words have still gone largely unheeded by the advocates of Romanism.
V. Conclusion
We must draw our study to a close. We have examined the ongoing debate over justification between advocates of the Roman position (“justification by faith and works”) and the Protestant position (“justification by faith alone”). In particular we have tried to focus our attention on defenses of the Roman position made by recent apologists and ex-evangelicals. Our concern has been to evaluate their arguments in light of the teaching of the Word of God and the best theological arguments produced by the church. We’ve seen that these recent advocates, like their predecessors, have failed to sharply set forth the real antithesis between the two positions. They have rather resorted to caricatures of their opponents’ positions — even though as former evangelicals they know full well that what they are attributing to Protestantism is untrue — and have introduced argumentative red-herrings into the discussion that simply serve to obscure the debate.

Nevertheless, for all that, they are commanding a hearing in some circles. They are presenting a winsome appeal to Protestants. Their appeals are therefore dangerous and must be opposed with the best we have to offer in the way of a contemporary defense of the Biblical faith of our Reformation forefathers. Such a threat has endangered the church in the past. We close with the eloquent and challenging words of J.C. Ryle, bishop of Liverpool, England, written at a time when John Henry Newman and others were leading a pilgrimage “back to Rome” that was threatening the Church of England. His words are as appropriate today as they were one-hundred years ago.

Men may call me an alarmist, if they like, for using such language. But I reply, there is a cause. The upper classes in this land are widely infected with a taste for a sensuous, histrionic, formal religion. — The lower orders are becoming sadly familiarized with all the ceremonialism which is the stepping-stone to Popery. — The middle classes are becoming disgusted with the Church of England, and asking what is the use of it. — The intellectual classes are finding out that all religions are either equally good or equally bad. — The House of Commons will do nothing unless pressed by public opinion. We have no Pyms or Hampdens there now. — And all this time Ritualism grows and spreads. The ship is among breakers, — breakers ahead and breakers astern, — breakers on the right hand and breakers on the left. Something needs to be done, if we are to escape shipwreck.

The very life of the Church of England is at stake, and nothing less. Take away the Gospel from a Church and that Church is not worth preserving. A well without water, a scabbard without a sword, a steam-engine without a fire, a ship without compass and rudder, a watch without a mainspring, a stuffed carcase without life, — all these are useless things. But there is nothing so useless as a Church without the Gospel. And this is the very question that stares us in the face. — Is the Church of England to retain the Gospel or not? Without it in vain shall we turn to our archbishops and bishops, in vain shall we glory in our cathedrals and parish churches. Ichabod will soon be written on our walls. The ark of God will not be with us. Surely something ought to be done.[54]

Indeed something should be done. Let us continue to resist the threat to the gospel represented by the doctrines of Romanism — with thoughtfulness and compassion, and with our strongest arguments and persuasions. And let us pray for these young men who have sadly taken a wrong turn, one which endangers their souls eternally. Let us pray that God would graciously grant them, and others in the Roman Catholic Church, a new Reformation. May the distracting splendors and earthly reassurances of Rome be eclipsed once again by “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor. 4:6) Rev. Roger Wagner is the pastor of Bayview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Chula Vista, California and a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Westminster Seminary, Escondido.
[1 ] Keating, Karl, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), p. 9.

[2] Ibid. [ ]

[3] Ibid., p. 10.

[4] I realize that use of terms like “Romanist” is not going to be appreciated by some of the new ex-evangelical defenders of Roman Catholicism. Karl Keating, for example, contrasts those who use such terms as “papist,” or “Romish,” or “jesuitical” with those who “act irenically, making common cause with Catholics on social and political matters and never using [such] terms.” Terms like those mentioned above, he says, “are dead giveaways for active anti-Catholics” (Keating, Catholicism, p. 11). It is true that such terms can be and have been used in a gratuitously defamatory way by defenders of Protestantism. But it is also true that they can be used thoughtfully and advisedly. I hope to use them in that latter fashion. I believe it is possible to be “actively anti-Catholic,” in the sense of opposing (what I take to be) the very serious errors of Rome, and seeking to persuade men to reject those teachings in favor of (what I take to be) the Biblical gospel, without being mean-spirited and abusive. At the same time the issues over which we are contending are not peripheral or trivial — they are vitally important to the eternal destinies of men and women. As such they call for strong language and strenuous debate.

Furthermore, I will resist with all my heart the kind of spiritual indifference that parades as “irenicism” or academic “distance” and (supposed) “objectivity.” Some who have written against Roman doctrine have used very strong language out of just such a deep spiritual concern (e.g.., the quotations from Bishop J.C. Ryle that conclude this article). I hope to stand in that line of opposition to Rome. I will leave it to the reader, unprejudiced by the dichotomy suggested by Keating, to pass judgment on the spirit and tone of the present article.

[ 5] One common argumentative tactic used to disarm one’s opponent in debate is to claim that one’s position has not been properly understood. That charge has been made in the current discussions of justification, sometimes (perhaps) with good reason. On other occasions such a charge can be nothing less than a ploy, or itself an expression of serious misunderstanding of the issues involved. Peter Kreeft, for example, declares that “the split between Protestant and Catholic originated in a misunderstanding” (Fundamentals of the Faith, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988], p. 277). He goes on to suggest (p. 279) that both Protestants and Catholics agreed that faith was necessary for salvation, and that the Bible requires good works of believers, and therefore that the problem arose in connection with the ambiguity of the terms used in the debate. He misses the fact, or at least does not mention it, that the real issue at stake was not the “necessity” of faith and works but the role of either in relationship to God’s justification of the ungodly that was the heart of the disagreement.

[ 6] If you listen to the recent debate between Scott Hahn and Robert Knudsen on the issues of (1) the authority of church tradition and (2) the nature of justification, I think you will come away with the impression that the issues in the debate were not well-focused, and that much of the time the two advocates were “talking past each other.” A tape-recording of this debate is available from Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17181, San Diego, CA 92117 (under the title “The Authority/Justification Debate,” by Scott Hahn and Robert Knudsen).

[ 7] I would refer the reader to the discussions of justification by John Calvin, Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, B.B. Warfield, John Murray, and Norman Shepherd (to name only those in the Reformed theological tradition). A brief consultation of the standard works on systematic theology, and a look through the card catalog at your nearest theological library should give you more than enough to read. I am convinced from my research that there truly is nothing new being said in the present round of the debate (which, in my judgment, capitalizes on the ignorance of the hearer/reader more than on the inadequacy of the previous discussions of the subject of justification).

[ 8] Scott Hahn makes this point in connection with his discussion of the question of the authority of tradition (in the debate with Knudsen mentioned in n.6 above). While a student, according to Hahn, he asked his professors and other leading evangelical theologians about this issue, and (he claims) they were not able to answer his questions/objections to the traditional Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (cf. the taped transcript of Hahn/Knudsen, “The Authority/Justification Debate”).

[ 9] Hahn, “The Authority/Justification Debate.”

[10] William Marshner refers to “a Protestant allergy to the word `merit'” (Marshner, William, Reasons for Hope, [Front Royal: Christendom College Press, 1978/1982], p.220). It is more than the word “merit” to which the Reformers objected — it is the very idea that any human quality or action could be added to the righteousness and satisfaction of Jesus Christ as part of the ground of justification.

The Reformers recognized that the Bible includes the language of “merit” and “reward,” and so it was not simply the idea of merit, abstractly considered, to which they objected. Rather, it was because “merit,” as understood in the Romanist doctrine of justification, compromised the sufficiency of the work of Christ that they wanted to exclude the concept of human merit from their teaching on justification. Even Norman Shepherd, who in recent years has been willing to discuss the question of good works in connection with justification, has repeatedly and unequivocally affirmed that such good works, while necessary to salvation, should not be understood as part of the ground of justification. Their “necessity” is to be understood along other lines. This is a point that Rome has never appreciated or acknowledged, and contemporary exponents of the doctrine of justification by faith and works show no signs of having grasped the significance of it either.

[11] Herein lies the special danger of these contemporary, ex-evangelical advocates of Rome. The uninformed Protestant listening, for example, to a debate sponsored by Catholic Answers may be easily taken in by the appealing rhetoric which sweetly coats the dangerous spiritual poison being taught by the Roman Catholic Church.

[12] Scott Hahn confines his discussion of justification almost exclusively to the question of the necessity of good works (Hahn/Knudsen, “The Authority/Justification Debate”). So does William Marshner, though he broadens his discussion of the question more than Hahn (Reasons, pp. 219-238). Karl Keating has some things to say about the question of assurance, but the focus of his concern is again with the necessity of good works to salvation/justification (Keating, Catholicism pp. 164-176).

[13] Marshner, Reasons, p. 220.

[14] Murray, John, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 160-161.

[15] Shepherd, Norman, “The Grace of Justification,” (mimeographed paper, 1979).

[16] I realize that not all Protestant defenders of the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” are clear on these issues. There has always been a broad range of opinion between Lutherans, Reformed, and Anabaptists on questions related to justification, particularly on the relationship of good works to saving faith.

The recent emergence of controversy within the evangelical camp over so-called “Lordship Salvation” only serves as a contemporary reminder that anyone who finally claims “to speak for Protestantism” on this vital question is presumptuous. Some of what I have already styled “caricatures” of the Protestant view are, in fact, held by some Protestants. Some of the “straw men” are real men. That is why recent defenders of Romanist view of justification have been able so easily to find Protestants to quote and refute.

A striking case in point is Karl Keating in his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism. Because of Keating’s choice to limit his interaction with Protestants to actively anti-Catholic Fundamentalists — “what follows will be no thorough review of fundamentalism as a whole and still less of Protestantism” (p. 10) — he can confine his discussion on salvation (pp. 164-176) to a refutation of such men as Kenneth E. Hagin and Wilson Ewin, whose credentials and argumentation are more than a little suspect. Meanwhile, he has nothing to say Luther or Calvin, or even to a more recent champion of justification by faith alone like John Murray. These recent Romanist apologists have been very successful so far in defining the field of discourse to their advantage, i.e., in such a way as to place their position in the best possible light.

[17] “No doctrine in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion stands alone. Each is a part of the whole. This is especially true of the doctrine of the Christian life or, more specifically, of regeneration. Calvin continually reminds his readers that the gift of the gospel is twofold: forgiveness of sin and renewal of life. These two gifts are the reverse sides of the one experience: salvation. Thus it is essential for each gift to be understood in the context of the other. There is no true knowledge of regeneration apart from a knowledge of justification by faith alone” (Leith, John, John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, [Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989], p. 87). This inseparable relationship between the various elements of the application of redemption, especially between justification and sanctification, is reflected in formulations of the Westminster Larger Catechism. Question #77 asks, “Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?” The answer given is, “Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection” (emphasis added).

Note also that these English Reformation divines had no problem using the language of “infused grace” and of the Spirit’s enabling of the believer to the exercise of such grace unto good works — language so zealously regarded by Rome. But they had a Biblically-informed understanding of the application of redemption to the life of the believer, and from that standpoint they recognized that this language properly referred to sanctification.

[18] Hahn, “Authority/Justification Debate.”

[19] Kreeft, Fundamentals, pp. 277-281.

[20] Keating, Catholicism, pp. 164-176.

[21] Marshner, Reasons, pp. 219-238.

[22 ] Ibid., p.223.

[23] As Kenan B. Osborne observes, “When the relationship between reality and sign is of such a nature that the reality cannot be made manifest except in and through a sign, then we have a dynamism which is at work in the sacraments.” (Sacramental Theology: A General Introduction, [New York: Paulist Press, 1988], p. 26). In so saying, Osborne reaffirms (though in more contemporary, post-Heideggerian garb) the traditional view of the necessity of the sacraments, i.e., without the mediatorial church and its sacraments, the reality of God’s saving grace cannot be conveyed to men. He goes on to point out that this “necessity” is not absolute, but arises from the revealed ordinance of God. “I do not want to give the impression that this situation could not have been otherwise; God could have worked out our salvation without baptism and Eucharist. To use a Scotistic dictum, de potentia Dei absoluta, this is quite possible. However, on the basis of revelation, as we find it in the New Testament, baptism and Eucharist, de potentia Dei ordinata, are the ways in which God has chosen to bring about our salvation” (pp. 26-27). Thus Rome preserves its unique role of sole dispenser of grace through the sacraments. Its doctrine of justification presupposes at every point this mediatorial office for the Roman Church.

[24] Keating, Catholicism p. 167.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., pp. 167-168.

[27] Hahn, “Authority/Justification Debate.”

[28] Marshner, Reasons, p. 222.

[29] “For Catholics, salvation depends on the state of the soul at death. Christ has already redeemed us, unlocked the gates of heaven, as it were. (Note that redemption is not the same as salvation but is a necessary prelude.) He did his part, and now we have to cooperate by doing ours. If we are to pass through those gates, we have to be in the right spiritual state. We have to be spiritually alive. If a soul is merely in a natural state, without sanctifying grace, which is the grace that gives it supernatural life, then it is dead supernaturally and incapable of enjoying heaven. It will not be allowed through the gates. But if it has sanctifying grace, then heaven is guaranteed even if a detour through purgatorial purification is required first. The Church teaches that only souls that are objectively good and objectively pleasing to God merit heaven, and such souls are ones willed with sanctifying grace. (Keating, Catholicism, p.166, emphasis added). All this is to say that the death of Christ is insufficient for salvation, and must be supplemented by human effort. All the talk of grace (as in “sanctifying grace”) – and the Romanist is careful to emphasize that human effort must be begun and continue by the grace of God – is irrelevant to this foundational question of the sufficiency of Christ and His redemptive accomplishment. Having faith in the finished work of Christ on the Day of Judgment is simply not enough, and no amount of Romanist rhetoric can negate that basic, tragic reality.

[30] It appears that the anonymous poet of the “Requiem” may have been more in touch with the heart of the gospel than these theologians, for he goes on to put these words in the mouth of the trembling sinner: “King of awful majesty / who freely savest the redeemed, / save me, O fount of mercy… / Seeking me…thou didst redeem me, suffering the cross, / let not such labor be frustrated. / O just Judge of vengeance, / give the gift of remission / before the day of reckoning.” No demeaning here of the hope for full and free remission as the legal deliverance from the liability of punishment. No word here of self-effort or of self-righteousness. No pleas here for the recognition by God of one’s own merits. Only the cry for mercy and a looking to Christ alone for pardon!

[31] Marshner, Reasons, p.220.

[32] Ibid., p.221.

[33] Ibid., p.222.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. [36] Ibid., p. 223.

[37] There is a dramatic example of this confusion in Scott Hahn’s debate with Knudsen on the subject of justification. In setting forth his concern to emphasize the believer’s participation in divine sonship, Hahn presents a quotation from John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied on the subject of adoption (p. 167). His citation of Murray is so edited as to give a completely different sense from Murray’s original comment, which has reference to the dangerous “confusion and error” of understanding adoption to involve participating (metaphysically) in Christ’s unique “Sonship” and in the divine life of the trinity. The irony is that is precisely what Hahn is claiming. According to Hahn, only by participating in Jesus’ “own divine sonship and nothing less than His own divine sonship” (Hahn’s words) can the believer really become a child of God (i.e., as opposed to being simply “declared to be” a child of God by adoption). Hahn’s confusion of the metaphysical and the ethical leads him into dangerous error claiming that the believer is absorbed into deity by virtue of his adoption. He falls into the very thing Murray warns against, and does so while criticizing Murray for the warning! Indeed, this is not uninformed ignorance, but deliberate and willful blindness.

[38] For a detailed and thorough exegetical treatment of the relevant Biblical texts, cf. Murray, John, New International Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959/1968), vol. I, Appendix A: “Justification,” pp. 167-168.

[39] “There are passages in which the thought of giving judgment provides us with the sense in which we are to understand the word justification…Rom. 8:33,34 conclusively shows that the meaning is that which is contrasted with the word “condemn” and that which is related to the rebuttal of a judicial charge. The meaning of the word “justify,” therefore, in the epistle to the Romans, and therefore in the epistle which more than any other book in Scripture unfolds the doctrine, is to declare to be righteous. Its meaning is entirely removed from the thought of making upright or holy or good or righteous” (Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, pp. 150-151).

[40] It is not clear if, in the Roman Catholic construction, it is faith which forms part of the ground of justification (along with good works), or the righteousness of Christ in whom faith is placed. Since Romanism has such an aversion to the idea of imputation, it seems more likely that Christ, by his death, merits the grace which is then infused in the sinner producing faith and good works. Thus Christ’s work is acknowledged as the source of divine grace in the sinner’s life, but His righteousness and satisfaction of divine justice do not themselves constitute the ground of justification. Rather, faith and good works (the fruit of grace) do.

[41] Keating, Catholicism, p.166.

[42] Ibid., pp. 155-156 (emphasis added). Murray adds, “And we must also bear in mind that the righteousness wrought in us by regeneration and sanctification is never in this life perfect. Hence it cannot in any sense measure up to the kind of righteousness required. Only a perfect righteousness can provide the basis for a complete, perfect, and irreversible justification. Furthermore, justification gives a title to and secures eternal life (Rom. 5:17,18,21). A righteousness wrought in us equips for the enjoyment of eternal life but it cannot be the ground of such a reward” (p. 156).

[43] Ibid., pp. 152.

[44] Murray discusses, and finally rejects, the notion that faith itself is the righteousness contemplated in justification. The reader is referred to that careful discussion (Murray, Commentary on Romans, pp.354-359). As to the phrase regarding Abraham’s believing in God, “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6), Murray concludes that the righteousness contemplated in justification “is the righteousness of God brought to bear upon us because it is by faith, and it is by faith that we become the beneficiaries of this righteousness because it is a God-righteousness. So indispensable is this complementation in the justification of the ungodly that the righteousness may be called `the righteousness of God’ or `the righteousness of faith’ without in the least implying that faith sustains the same relations to this righteousness as God does….The righteousness is a God-righteousness and it is a faith-righteousness. But it is a God-righteousness because it is of divine property; it is a faith-righteousness because it is brought to bear upon us by faith” (Ibid., pp.358-359).

[45] Murray, Redemption, p. 154.

[46] If one subscribed to a “governmental theory” of the atonement, this charge might have some foundation, but not if one holds (as most conservative Protestants do) to the view that the atonement of Christ was a real substitutionary satisfaction of the demands of divine justice on behalf of His people (cf. John Murray, Ibid., ch. II, “The Nature of the Atonement,” pp.25-56).

[47] Cf. Murray, John, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), pp.36-41. Consider also B.B.Warfield’s evaluation of the historic significance of the growing emphasis on the “covenant” in the seventeenth century: “The idea [the `covenant’ or `federal’ method of exhibiting the plan of the Lord’s dealings with men] was present to the minds of the Church Fathers and the Schoolmen; and it underlay Protestant thought, both Lutheran and Reformed, from the beginning, and in the latter had come to clear expression, first in Ursinus. But now it quickly became dominant as the preferable manner of conceiving the method of the divine dealing with men. The effect was to throw into the highest relief the threefold doctrine of imputation, and to make manifest as never before the dependency of the great doctrines of sin, satisfaction, and justification upon it” (Warfield, Benjamin Studies in Theology, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1932], p.306).

[48] “Thus it came about that in the hands of the great Protestant leaders of the sixteenth century, and of their successors, the Protestant systematizers of the seventeenth century, the three-fold doctrine of imputation – of Adam’s sin to his posterity, of the sins of His people to the Redeemer, and of the righteousness of Christ to His people – at last came into its rights as the core of the three constitutive doctrines of Christianity – the sinfulness of the human race, the satisfaction of Jesus Christ, and justification by faith. The importance of the doctrine of imputation is that it is the hinge on which these three great doctrines turn, and the guardian of their purity” (Ibid., p.305).

[49] Keating, Catholicism, pp.167-168.

[50] Murray, Redemption, p.153.

[51] Ibid., pp. 154-155.

[52] There is a price to pay for this continued willful blindness, not the least element of which is an ongoing lack of assurance in the piety of Rome. How could it be otherwise? If Christ has not done all the sinner needs, and if the work of Christ might prove to be in vain, then where can the soul rest for comfort and encouragement? Modern advocates of Rome (e.g.., Hahn and Keating) are somewhat defensive on the subject of assurance, charging that no one can have absolute certainty with regard to their salvation. But that misses the point. Does the heart have a resting-place in a fully-sufficient Savior, or is it left to languish in the doubts and fears that must necessarily come as the Christian struggles with the ongoing reality of temptation and sin?

[53] Calvin, John, “Reply to Sadoleto,” quoted in Leith, Calvin, p. 95, n. 48.

[54] Ryle, J.C., Light from Old Times, (London: Chas J. Thyne & Jarvis, 1924), pp. 52-53.
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