Kevin J. Hughes
One of the earliest voices in Christian history is Clement of Rome. He died in 99 A.D, just as the first century was coming to a close. In his words, “All these therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions that they did, but through His will. And so, we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified [dikaioumetha] through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety [eusebeias], or works [ergon] that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith [dia tes pisteos], by which the Almighty God has justified [edikaiosen] all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Clement of Rome, died 99 A.D). In the first few centuries the subject of this very quote is not one that we find discussed thoroughly. However, in today’s Christian church, this is one of the controversial issues, in fact, this very issue sparked the Protestant Reformation, and that still today has been an area of division as well as growth for the body of Christ. At the heart of it, this is a question of how people are made right with God, and there could surely be very little more important for discussion than that. To that end, it can be demonstrated that Justification is a forensic (legal) declaration of righteousness received by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Before getting too far though, some points should be made clear. First off, this issue is too often oversimplified by people on every side. For instance, Allister McGraths’ work Iustia Dei discusses his own thorough inquiry into this issue from a historical perspective. His conclusion was that there was a “theological novum” within the reformation. However, this idea is often oversimplified to mean that Martin Luther “invented a new doctrine.” As Paul Vendredi for instance claimed in a debate, by stating that Martin Luther invented the doctrine, “while defecating.” The quote above demonstrates that nearly 1500 years before Luther was born there were Christians, those appointed as leaders by the Apostles themselves even, who believed that justification was by faith alone. However, it might be said that Luther gave the doctrine a new emphasis, this was done through the doctrine of imputation, but more on that later. The point is, it is not exactly historically accurate to claim that Luther “invented” the doctrine of justification by faith alone, especially to make this claim along with a crass, and inaccurate remark about defecation that has simply no basis in any scholarly historical source.
For now, it should be said that Vendredi’s comment covers, actually most of the objections to the ideas set fourth in the Protestant Reformation. For instance, Veli-Matti Karkkainen sums up most of the frequent challenges to the idea of justification by faith alone, saying, “If so, the exclusive clinging to one historically, fairly late, formulation should be put in perspective rather than made a measuring stick for all soteriological formulae.” (Karkkainen, 2011, p. 126). This is a fair argument, after all, a great theologian once famously said, “That which is new is rarely ever true.” However, as this document hopes to show, the Reformed and Lutheran understanding of justification is not something “invented” but rather clarified in the 16th century. The purpose of this document will not so much be a demonstration of the historical validity of Sola Fide (Faith alone justification), but rather an exegetical defense. Freed Indeed Ministries has been doing a series called Faith of our Fathers that examines the doctrines held dear by reformed Christians today both exegetically and historically. In that series the historical validity of Justification by faith alone will be the subject of discussion. It would be outside of the scope of this document to cover that issue very deeply however. Iustia Dei, and The God Who Justifies are excellent recourses, and contain a much better analysis of the historical issues involved.
First off, it must be demonstrated what Sola Fide actually means. Too many people seek to defend a doctrine or idea, but because they do not understand it themselves, make all sorts of claims and fallacious arguments that misrepresent their topic, in the hopes of avoiding this, definitions and clarifications are essential. The doctrine is defined by the Westminster shorter catechism thusly; “An act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone” (The Westminster Assembly, 1646-47). Michael Horton points out the important phrase which defines a truly Protestant understanding of Justification, “Not for anything wrought in them or done by them.” (Horton, 2011). This phrase is so important to Horton, and to the clarity of the Reformed position, because it underscores what exactly is being said. As R.C Sproul notes, “It is not the idea that faith in ‘necessary’ that set Luther apart, Rome teaches to this very day that faith is necessary, it is the idea that faith is sufficient…” (R.C. Sproul, 2015). In other words, almost any group that even claims any degree of Christianity would say that faith is necessary, and frankly it is beyond the scope of this present work to discuss the arguments of some Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian groups that assert people can be saved without faith (there are some good resources against ideas of universalism and inclusivism on freedindeedmin.org); yet this would not make someone Protestant, or in line with Protestant theology, to be a Protestant in the classical sense, one would have to understand faith to be sufficient for justification, that is, one would understand that a person is made right with God by faith alone, not faith plus anything. In fact, many people who claim to be Protestant today would not be seen as such by the Reformers, given the fact that they are not teaching the Protestant doctrine of justification.
In other words, the Westminster Catechism is explaining that a sinner is declared righteous before God by a legal declaration. The idea here is what lays the foundation for the doctrine of imputation, but before getting to imputation, it is necessary to discuss the forensic nature of justification. This hits the heart of what justification by faith is. It also sets apart a distinctly Protestant (Lutheran/Reformed) position of Justification from that of any other format, whether Rome, the cults, or even groups that have nothing to do with Christianity. Karkkainen even asserted as much in Justification Five Views, claiming that the idea of deification would be a better bridge builder than justification, since many false religions already have concepts of human deification as a part of their world view (though Michael Horton rightly responds that there is a huge difference between what most religions believe and the Orthodox view of theosis, a view held by Luther, Calvin, and most of the early Reformed Tradition). In Romans 4:2-5, the Apostle Paul says, “What does the Scripture say? That Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness. Now to the one who works, pay is not considered a gift, but as something owed. But to the one who does not work but believes on Him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.” (emphasis mine). Thus it is clear that justification is by faith, not by works, since what was written was not for Abraham alone, but for all who believe (Romans 4:23-25).
It is even clear from the above quote that Paul makes the same point that Clement makes, but with broader scope. That is to say, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to show that in faith righteousness is credited to people, not based on works of righteousness that they perform, but based on them trusting in the work of God. Romans 3:19-25 tells us what work of God that is, namely, the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Paul makes his point in the form of a polemic, in other words, he is setting his sound teaching over and against the false teaching that opposes the gospel. That’s why Paul talks about work, and the fact that if someone works for pay, the pay is owed to them. If a person is working from nine to five, and then receives their paycheck, they would never say, “Thank you so much, you are so generous for paying me the money that you are contractually obligated to give me.” In other words, a manager or boss who gives the rewards which they are contractually obligated to give, can receive no commendation for giving grace. Grace is only grace if it is a free gift, the moment something is added to that, it ceases to be all of grace (Romans 11:6).
One might ask, at this point, “Why does Paul quote Genesis 15:6?” Well, John Calvin may be able to provide the best answer, “As to the word righteousness, we must attend to the meaning of Moses. When he says [of Abraham] that ‘He believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness.’ (Genesis 15:6) He intimates that one is righteous who is reckoned such in the sight of God. Now, since men have not righteousness dwelling in themselves, they receive it by imputation; because God holds their faith as accounted for righteousness. We are therefore said to be ‘justified by faith,” (Romans 3:28; 5:1) not because faith infuses us with some habit or quality, but because we are accepted by God.” Calvin expertly demonstrates that Paul’s point is clear, but that it is simply the clear point Moses had already made. That point is simply this, God declares sinners to be righteous, and He does so apart from works that they perform, but only through the Propiation of Christ.
Jimmy Akins challenges such an understanding, noting that Genesis 15 is not the first place where Abraham displays saving faith (Akin, 2015). After all, chapter 12 already has Abraham leaving home and everything he knows in an act of faith. Akin thus determines that Abraham cannot be being declared just in a Protestant understanding in Genesis 15:6. The problem with this understanding is the fact that Akin does not deal with the possibility that Abraham was justified by faith from throughout his life. Paul says that Abraham believed God and it was credited as righteousness in Romans 4 (quoting Genesis 15:6). He does not say that this was the moment when Abraham received his first or only justification, and it isn’t the Protestant claim that he does. It would seem that Akin doesn’t really understand the historically Protestant position on the passage. He intimates that Protestants are claiming that the passage teaches that Genesis 15 is where Abraham “got saved” so to speak. This however, is not exactly what is being argued. It would be more accurate to say that the Protestant claim is that the basis which the text gives for Abraham’s justification is faith. Not that this text by itself offers the original moment of said faith, but that Abraham was justified by faith, and that alone. Such an understanding would clear up Akins’ difficulty with the passage. In fact, it clears up Akins’ other big justification challenge in the same section of his book. In other words, his claim that justification has a past, present, and future sense. Akins seems under the impression that the “Once for all” view against which he argues cannot comprise this. However, the very title he ascribes, “once for all” implies that there is an element that happens at some point, an element that persists, and an element that is forever. Furthermore, Akins ignores the fact that the word justification is used in different senses to convey different things throughout Scripture (James 2 verses Romans 3-4 for instance). Paul’s clearest exposition of justification however, comes when faced with the first ever heresy, and it comes in the context of putting that heresy to rest, to risk using a cliché, once and for all.
In the book of Galatians, the gospel is shown to be opposed to the sectarian and legalistic view of the first ever heresy, the Judaizers, and thus Galatians becomes the clearest demonstration of justification by faith. The big heresy of the Judaizers was the claim that Gentiles could be saved only by being circumcised and going through the process of becoming a proselyte to the Jewish faith. The Apostle Paul points out that his doctrine of justification prevents this understanding. After all, if Abraham was justified by his faith, then it makes no sense to say that Gentiles have to be justified by their works. A fuller exegetical examination of Galatians, and of the covenants, can be found on Freed Indeed Live. However, this is outside of the scope of this document.
What is not outside of the present scope is to note that James Dunn questions the fact that the topic of Jewish and Gentile relations, which forms the backdrop for Paul’s doctrine of Justification by Faith, is not often discussed when this topic emerges today (Dunn, 2011). His point is an understandable one, it is odd that a doctrine usually expressed with relation to another in Scripture often finds its expression without that framework today, but the truth is that most discussion of this issue doesn’t bare much relation to the issue of Jewish-Gentile fellowship. So, while Paul is using the doctrine of Justification by faith to demonstrate that Jews and Gentiles no longer have a barrier, because the wall of legal observances that separated them are not required for the salvation of the Gentiles, the doctrine of justification doesn’t hinge on this issue, and therefore since that isn’t commonly the issue being dealt with, it would actually be odd, and even needless, if it was brought up in every publication in which the topic was treated.
More importantly, as Michael F. Bird (who agrees with Dunn, and has been influenced greatly by the same “New Perspective on Paul” which drew the above-mentioned remark), notes that the doctrine of forensic justification is a “Necessary implication” of the text (Bird, 2011). In other words, while Bird doesn’t hold to a classically reformed view of imputation, which he says, “Presses legitimate biblical ideas into an illegitimate framework…” (ibid p.145) he can still say that a forensic understanding of justification, or at least a forensic element to an understanding, is necessary. Therefore, while the New Perspective has been helpful in informing and expanding many people’s views, Michael Horton is right to say that it is not the view which, in the final analysis, “Makes the best use of all of the data” (Horton 2011). Since this paper is hardly a polemic, and mainly only intended to present the doctrine of justification accurately, it doesn’t make much sense to discuss the many facets and issues related to the New Perspective, nor to express what is right, and what is off, about many of its theories.
The point of mentioning the aforementioned issue however discussed by Bird and Dunn, is that the idea of justification simply cannot be divorced from a forensic category. While Michael Bird has argued very well that it cannot stop at a legal category (Bird 2011) it doesn’t have to. His point comes down to the fact that justification involves more than just a declaration of righteousness, but that that declaration results in a right relationship with God, and that right relationship is the goal to which justification points. Which is absolutely the truth. However, it seems odd that the context of this statement is Bird explaining why he does not believe in the traditional Protestant view of justification. This seems strange because as Michael Horton, rightly, critiqued Bird, the Reformation view has always contained within itself the idea that Jesus’ righteousness imputed to believers resulted in right relationship with God (Horton 2011). In fact, as Karkkainen notes, Luther’s own view of justification didn’t end with the moment of conversion (as many of his opponents claim). Rather, Luther’s doctrine of the Christian life, and sanctification resembles the doctrine of theosis as taught by the Eastern Orthodox (Karkkainen, 2011). In fact, Luther’s doctrine of theosis is well recorded (Marquart, 2000). John Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification and the Christian life is actually the doctrine of theosis. To discuss Calvin’s theosis would be a topic far too worthy for a couple sentences here. Michael Horton very powerfully explains and discusses the theosis of John Calvin and the first generations of great Reformed theologians in Justification Five Views, but the topic deserves a much fuller treatment elsewhere. Though it would not make sense to discuss the issue of theosis too much in this present work, it would seem the aforementioned presence of the doctrine in both Luther and Calvin should dissuade anyone from making the claim that theosis and Sola Fide are in some way incompatible, which in turn should equally dissuade anyone from the claim that Reformation theology is insufficient for a very high view of sanctification. This point is simply a conflation of categories. It is true that some people have tried to claim Sola Fide as a part of their doctrine, while they were in fact believing that a sinner could simply “come to Jesus” and be saved without any change in their life taking place. This however was thoroughly denounced by Martin Luther, who voiced his disgust with such ideas many times. John Calvin devoted an entire chapter of the Institutes to a refutation of the Libertines. Such ideas are rightly refuted by the Reformers, which should demonstrate that the Reformers had no desire to eliminate sanctification, rather it was their desire to place both sanctification and justification in their proper sphere within the greater context of salvation.
The point is simply the this, the Reformation view has always contained in itself the idea of a vibrant relationship with God, as well as victorious life (see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus), for some, even a return to theosis! Therefore, there is simply no reason to charge the doctrine with the ideas that Bird, Dunn, and many Roman Catholic theologians over the years have been tempted to use. Arguments that imply, or outright state that Sola Fide results in a lack of zeal for personal holiness. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as is testified by the great volume of works by theologians with a deep commitment to Sola Fide and equally deep commitment to sanctification. In fact, many people have found the work of the Puritans with regard to personal holiness to be so powerful and forceful that John Bunyan’s works have been credited with converting more Christians than any other work outside of Scripture, yet their presentation of justification could not have been more clearly Protestant After all, who could read Bunyan, or Owen without seeing a deep and abiding commitment to a Reformed understanding of justification. Anything more on this would be off-topic, but this should show that a forensic understanding of justification does not leave the Reformation teaching of justification open to questions about personal holiness.
Finally, only an idea of imputation, or legal justification can make sense of all of the data. The New Testament is frequently where the battle rages over this doctrine, but many people are surprised to find that the Old Testament actually has a rich and full doctrine of legal status, and imputation, that informs the legal language used by Paul in the New Testament.
One example is Exodus 23:7, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or the righteous, I the Lord will not acquit the guilty.” Dr. James White discusses this verse in The God Who Justifies, noting that it comes in a clearly legal context. The first thing he notes is that it declares a person legally righteous. That is to say, the righteous person in this verse is not a morally perfect man, or even necessarily someone who is without sin before God, they are someone whom the law does not have a charge against. (White, 2001). This shows that at least in some way, shape and form the Old Testament law has a place for legal imputation. That isn’t enough to show the doctrine of Sola Fide by itself, but gives powerful impetus to the idea of a legal imputation of righteousness.
Another text of import is Deuteronomy 25:1, this is the most important one. “If there is a dispute between men, they are to go to court, and the judges will hear their case. They will clear the innocent and condemn the guilty.” The NASB translates “clear” as “justify”. That is to say, the text is claiming that the judge will declare the innocent to be righteous, and will declare condemnation upon the guilty.
The above quoted text of Scripture is important to the topic because it is obvious that the text is not saying that the guilty will be inherently changed, nor that the innocent are inherently changed by this declaration itself. This is a purely forensic declaration. In fact, it is made all the clearer that this is the case when we look at Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” Again, this is obviously not talking about a declaration that somehow changes the guilty person into an innocent one, or makes the sinner righteous, after all, wouldn’t that be the best thing that a judge could do? That would not be an abomination, if I was a judge, and for every case that came into my courtroom, I could declare them innocent and actually make the crime cease to exist; say they killed someone, if I, by declaring them innocent, brought their victim back to life, and made their heart different so that they were no longer a murderer, then I think I would actually be obligated to do this. So, therefore, this text is clearly talking about a legal declaration.
Now, someone might say, “Yes, but if it is an abomination to declare a sinner just, then wouldn’t that mean Paul contradicted this verse?” The answer is no. Paul only contradicts this verse if someone actually holds to the view that was discussed above, in which God declares them righteous in some fictitious way. However, this is not the biblical doctrine. Ephesians 2:8-10 says, “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.”
In the context, Paul has just shown that all human beings are sinful by nature, and that sinful nature means that we are naturally separate from God. However, God comes in and does a work that changes everything. That work is regeneration. God comes, changes the sinner’s heart, takes away their heart of stone, giving them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), and in that He gives them the faith which justifies. Faith itself is actually a gift, the exercise of which results in justification. In the Ephesians section quoted above, Paul says that God gives faith, and that that faith saves us by grace alone. Then he says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. In other words, because of regeneration we believe in Christ, and we are right with Him, and we live lives that show our love for Him. Which is why on the last day, Jesus will come, and He will declare the just to be righteous, citing their works as an example of their righteousness (See Matthew 25; Revelation 22:21). It isn’t that their works saved them, it is rather that they have been saved by God, and their works have made that salvation manifestly clear, so that on the last day the Lord has as much good to say about the elect as ill to say about the reprobate.
Still, if justification is a legal declaration, then this means that the “ungodly” (Romans 4:4) sinners are declared righteous before God. This seems like a bitter twisting of justice to many people, however, the means by which this is accomplished righteously is found in Romans 3. After Paul gives his diatribe about the sinfulness of the human race (Romans 3:9-18), the Apostle gives hope for how those ungodly sinners that he has just described can be brought into right relationship with God. How does that happen?
“But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealed—attested by the Law and the Prophets —that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.” -Romans 3:21-22
The need of faith, and the forensic nature of the justification that results from faith are important to note. However, the most important factor has only now been examined, the necessary object of faith. The object of faith is Christ Jesus the Lord, and more specifically His propitiating sacrifice on behalf of human beings. This means that the only way a sinner can be justified before God is by placing His trust in Jesus Christ alone, and every sinner who places their trust in Jesus Christ, and not in their works, will in the final analysis enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Believe it or not, this is the point towards which everything else points. Jesus alone is the means of salvation, Jesus alone is the savior, and He has attained our salvation through His atoning sacrifice on behalf of sinners. Therefore, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). It is only the empty hand of faith, the hand that claims no works, and no demand for reward, but humbly admits its sinfulness, that will receive from the Lord justification. Then being declared righteous by the Lord, He will work out His purposes in the one He has saved (Phil 2:12). Therefore, ultimately, it is by believing on the Lord that a person is declared righteous through the blood of the New Covenant that has propitiated the Lord of glory, and because Word has become flesh “For us men and for our salvation”, flesh can now become word through the incarnational power of the Messiah working in those who have been justified by faith alone.
Soli Deo Gloria
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White, J. (2001). The God Who Justifies. Bethany House.
 Allister McGrath in his book Iustia Dei and Veli-Mati Karkainnen in Justification Five Views have both noted this to be the case. Also in Five Views Michael Horton discusses in more detail the fact that the early church did not discuss this concept thoroughly.