Justification Revisited

by Mark M. Mattison

Systematic theologians love to multiply doctrines. Each major doctrine is like a well-oiled engine which can be broken down with precision into various subdoctrines. These can in turn be analyzed, rationalized, explained, and clearly distinguished from one another. Each individual piece is internally consistent with itself and every other; together, they form one watertight whole.

Such is the case with the doctrine of "soteriology" or salvation. Many theologians break this doctrine down into subcategories like justification, regeneration, sanctification, adoption, and just about anything else ending with the suffix "-tion." This excessive analyzing, it seems to me, has obscured a very simple doctrinal truth. Not only have we been missing the forest for the trees; we've been multiplying new categories of trees that don't even exist. The result has been confusion, division, even conflict.


Justification Defined

I don't believe it's possible to distinguish between these various "doctrines" of salvation. Justification, sanctification, adoption - I believe these are simply different Scriptural ways of saying the same thing. I can no longer see the difference between justification and sanctification. The word hagios means "holy" or "sanctified"; the word hagiazo means "to make holy" or "to sanctify." The word dikaios means "equitable, innocent, just"; dikaioo is a difficult verb to translate into English and in fact bears many meanings, ranging from acquital and forgiveness to actually making just. The various nuances are slightly different but the point is essentially the same: We who were unholy and guilty have been made holy and innocent.

Is it possible to be unholy and innocent at the same time? That is the position of many who carefully distinguish between justification and sanctification. Systematic Theologian Henry Thiessen articulates this view well: "Justification is a declarative act. It is not something wrought in man, but something declared of man. It does not make upright or righteous, but declares righteous."1 Some express this by distinguishing between condition and position. Our position before God in Christ is just, even though our true condition may be wretched and utterly unjust: "simul iustus et peccator."

John Wesley rightly pointed out the obvious fallacy in this type of thinking:

Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom He justifies; that He thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that He accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that He esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteousness. Surely no. The judgement of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with His unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man, to whom God hath given understanding weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture.2

Considering these comments, it is little wonder that Wesley reacted so strongly against Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians3 and that Wesley's thinking has been compared to Catholicism.

For that matter, is Catholicism right about justification after all?


Imputation or Infusion?

In justifying us, does God "infuse" or imbue us with righteousness or does he simply "impute" or credit righteousness to us? Put another way, does God actually make us righteous or simply regard us as righteous? Protestantism affirms the latter, Catholicism the former. As the Council of Trent put it, "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man."4 Protestantism carefully distinguishes between justification and sanctification; Catholicism does not.

Which view is more Scriptural? Consider the following verses.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds....This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Tit. 2:11-14,6,7, NRSV with text note in 2:13).

Notice the justifying, purifying work of God's grace. Notice the single, seamless doctrine; the surgical knife of theological precision cannot justifiably dissect this doctrine. Going back to Romans and Galatians, I must believe that when God justifies us, he literally renders us just; he really does make us righteous. There is nothing strictly forensic about this act. The angel of the Lord told Joseph that Jesus would "save his people from their sins," not "in their sins" (Matt. 1:21). I believe that Catholicism is correct in "confusing" justification with sanctification.

What, then, of the Protestant Reformation? What of Martin Luther's protests? Luther's protests against the abuses of the Church were entirely valid. Attempts to earn merit through acts of penance, the sale of indulgences, the veneration of relics - these practices have no spiritual value and obscure the basic message of the cross. To get at the heart of the issue, Luther revamped the doctrine of justification - and the pendulum swung to the other side of the grandfather clock known as "merit."


Doing Away with Merit

At this point it will be well to distinguish our view of justification from the Catholic view. Our view differs in two respects: First, although we believe in the infusion of righteousness, we do not believe that the infusion necessarily happens at baptism; we reject the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Baptism is not a sacrament but a symbol; it is a meaningful ritual which expresses a grand truth, but there is nothing magical the act in itself (1 Pet. 3:21).

Second, we reject as unscriptural the concept of "merit." This is a Latin idea foreign to the New Testament. It should thus be no surprise that the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists no Scripture verses in its section on merit.

Interestingly, this is the one point on which Catholics and Protestants are totally agreed. Protestant T.C. Hammond writes: "The meritorious ground of justification is...the sacrifice of Christ."5 Despite his criticism of Catholicism, he is very Catholic on this point. Compare the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Justification has been merited for us by the passion of Christ."6 Notice that in both cases, justification is meritorious; it is earned. The historic debate is not whether salvation must be merited (earned); it is how salvation is merited (earned). Did Jesus do all the work, or do we do some of it ourselves?

But is the question itself the wrong question?


"To One Who Works"

The whole system of "penance" and "merit" is unscriptural. Despite a millennium and-a-half of theologizing, there is still no evidence that God ever expected men and women to earn salvation by living perfect lives, whether in a "covenant of works" or otherwise. The New Testament consistently portrays eternal life as a "free gift" (Rom. 6:23) and emphasizes that God is not obliged to grant eternal life, but that he chooses to grant eternal life (1 Cor. 1:21; Eph. 1:5; Col. 1:20,21). Salvation is not a commodity to be purchased by merit: "Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due" (Rom. 4:4, NRSV).

This actually runs contrary to what many Protestant systematic theologies tell us. We are frequently told that we cannot merit eternal life because we failed to do that in Adam, our federal or natural head whose original sin is imputed to us. For that reason we must rest on the merits of the Second Adam who did earn eternal life by his works. Jesus' merits are imputed to us, and that is the basis of our salvation. Scriptural support for this theory is tenuous at best; it is articulated and defended by a handful of proof-texts and a great deal of philosophizing.

The New Testament may not speak of the imputation of Christ's merits, but does it not speak of the imputation of Christ's righteousness? That language is used in some translations. The word "impute" in various forms is used fifteen times in the King James Version, six times in Romans 4 alone. (More recent translations tend to use the word "reckon.") But does this term bear a forensic sense only? Consider Romans 4:8, a citation of Psalm 32:2: "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (KJV). Does this imply that God may "impute" or ascribe sin to an innocent man? Consider the remainder of Psalm 32:2: "...and in whose spirit there is no deceit" (NRSV). God does not "impute" or "reckon" as sinful the man who is not sinful. If God "imputes" (ascribes) righteousness to us or "reckons" us as righteous, it is because we are righteous; and if we are righteous, it is because God made us so in Christ through the sanctifying work of his Holy Spirit. "Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous" (1 John 3:7).

There is a Greek word for "impute" that would very well bear the Protestant sense. That word is ellogeo and it means "to put on account." It is used in Philemon 18, where Paul writes to Philemon about the slave Onesimus: "If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account." It is also used in Romans 5:13, but every other key verse in this portion of Romans uses the term logizomai which means, again, "to reckon."



God freely grants holiness and salvation to those who ask for forgiveness and desire to obey him. Of course we will not obey him perfectly; hence the promise of ongoing forgiveness (1 John 1:9).

What is the Scriptural truth about justification? It is very simply that God forgives us of our sins and makes us into better people.



1Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Inc.), 1949, rev. 1979, p. 275, emphasis mine.

2John Wesley, Forty-Four Sermons (London: The Epworth Press), 1944, p. 53.

3Wesley, Journal, Monday, June 15, 1741, cited in Donald W. Dayton, "Law and Gospel in the Wesleyan Tradition," Grace Theological Journal, Fall 1991, Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 237.

4Cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguouri, MO: Liguouri Publications), 1994, p. 482.

5T.C. Hammond, In Understanding Be Men (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press), 1936, rep. 1974, p. 142.

6Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 482.

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