The Reformed View of Justification

I.    Legal (forensic) declaration

       A.    Deut 25:1 – If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked

       B.  Rom 4:3, 5   –  For what does the Scripture say, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

II.         The ground of justification – The righteousness of Christ

      A.    Phil 3:9 – …may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my  own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.

B.  Rom 5:18 – So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

III.  The instrument of justification – faith alone

A.    Gal 2:16 – knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus

B.     Eph 2:8&9 –  For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and none of this is of yourselves; it is all the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

IV.      The results of justification

A.     Gal 3:2 – This is the only thing I want to find out from you; did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?

B.     Gal 5:22 – now the fruit of the Spirit is love

C.    James 2:26 – faith without works is dead 

 WLC Q. 70 What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons 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.

 WLC Q. 73. How does faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?

A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.

Errors concerning Justification

 Roman Catholic – Council of Trent – 1537

Canon 1 – “If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.”

Canon 3 –  “If anyone says that without the predisposing inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without His help, man can believe, hope, love or be repentant as he ought, so that the grace of justification may be bestowed upon Him, let him be anathema.”

Canon 9. If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone…let him be anathema.

Canon 11. If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins,… let him be anathema.

Canon 12. If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.

Canon 24. If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase, let him be anathema.

Canon 30. If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.

Catholicism teaches that justification is God’s renovating act within man. God infuses Christ’s righteousness into us and then declares what He sees in us. Without this regenerating and renewing work of the Holy Spirit, sinners can never be justified. Faith is active faith that continues to respond to saving grace in order to be justified.

Legal fiction?  It is RC teaching that contains a legal fiction. How can God justify an imperfect person? How can Christ’s righteousness not be enough? Plus, mortal vs. venial sins, perfect contrition vs. imperfect contrition, purgatory, indulgences (plenary vs. partial), all compromise a free justification


 John Wesley

“In what sense is the righteousness of Christ imputed to all mankind, or to believers?   We do not find it expressly affirmed in Scripture, that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any; although we do find that `faith is imputed’ to us `for righteousness’ (Q. 16, Methodist Minutes, June 25, 1744).

“Who of us is now accepted of God?  He that now believes in Christ with a loving, obedient heart.  But who among those that never heard of Christ (is accepted by God)? He that, according to the light he has, `feareth God and worketh righteousness.’  Is this that same with `he that is sincere?’ Nearly, if not quite.  Is this not salvation by works?  Not by the merit of works, but by works as a condition.”

“Does not talking, without proper caution, of a justified or sanctified state, tend to mislead men; almost naturally to trust in what was done in one moment? Whereas we are every moment pleasing or displeasing to God, according to our works; according to the whole of our present inward tempers and outward behavior. (Methodist Minutes,” Wesley’s Works, Vol. VIII, pp. 337-338, Q. 1-5, 8)

Charles Finney  – Finney’s Systematic Theology (1846)

“The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ’s obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption; to wit, that Christ owed no obedience to the law in his own person, and that therefore his obedience was altogether a work of supererogation, and might be made a substitute for our own obedience; that it might be set down to our credit, because he did not need to obey it for himself” (p. 321).

“Present sanctification, in the sense of present full consecration to God, is another condition, not ground of justification….It certainly cannot be true that God accepts and justifies the sinner in his sins. The Bible everywhere represents justified persons as sanctified, and always expressly, or impliedly, conditionates justification upon sanctification, in these sense of present obedience to God (p. 327).”

“The doctrine of a literal imputation of Adam’s sin to all his posterity, of the literal imputation of all the sins of the elect to Christ, and of his suffering for them the exact amount due to the transgressors, of the literal imputation of Christ’s righteousness or obedience to the elect, and the consequent perpetual justification of all that are converted from the first exercise of faith, whatever their subsequent life may be — I say regard these dogmas as fabulous, and better befitting a romance than a system of theology” (p. 333).

In the same way, God’s judgment that we are righteous before him even though we are not inherently righteous in ourselves is not a “legal fiction.” The perfect righteousness of Christ is credited to the believer’s account as though the believer had never sinned and had perfectly loved God and his neighbor with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. The account not only lacks any debt; it shows a balance of perfect righteousness… God judges a believing sinner righteous not because the individual is actually righteous, but because Christ is actually righteous and the believer is covered in his righteousness. (Michael Horton)


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