The Message: Justification
As the sinner trusts Christ for salvation, His perfect righteousness is credited to that sinner’s account before God, and he receives the forgiveness of his sin.
With the most acute insight, Martin Luther declared that a church’s doctrine of justification indicated whether that church was standing or falling. He was right, and his observation is in keeping with the inspired words of Galatians 1:8-9: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
Here, in the context of presenting the centrality of justification in the Gospel message, Paul pronounced a Divine anathema on anyone, even an angel from heaven, who would deviate from God’s way of justifying sinners. The inescapable conclusion is that to err on this doctrine is to contribute to the eternal damnation of souls! The church must be right on justification; this doctrine lies at the very heart of Divine revelation concerning the salvation of men.
What is this justification? How are we to understand it? It would be difficult to better the definition of the Westminster Divines: “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.” Put simply, it is the establishment of the sinner in a standing of righteousness before God. The New Testament verb translated ‘justify’ means ‘to declare or demonstrate to be righteous’. A careful and honest study of this term will reach the conclusion that it has a purely legal connotation. Therefore, justification is God’s action in declaring sinners ‘righteous’ and placing them in a state of legal perfection before His law (Luke 18:14).
Scripture shows that God’s pronouncement of a sinner to be righteous is not arbitrary. It has a clear foundation. When God justifies sinners (Romans 8:33), He does so on the basis of a perfect righteousness freely provided in Christ (Romans 5:19). The obedience mentioned by the apostle is the perfect obedience of Christ to the law – given in His sinless life to the law’s precept, and in His atoning death to the law’s penalty – thereby providing a perfect righteousness for sinners. For this reason, Scripture portrays Christ as our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6). In a nutshell, God, through the obedience of Christ, has provided a perfect righteousness for sinners, a righteousness whereby they may be justified (1 Corinthians 1:30). And so He may freely justify the sinner without compromising His own holiness (Romans 3:26). Then, as the sinner trusts Christ for salvation, His perfect righteousness is credited to that sinner’s account before God, and he receives the forgiveness of his sin and full acceptance before the moral law (Romans 4:6-7, 5:1)
The primary feature of justification is that it is an act of God (Romans 8:33, cf Luke 18:13-14). Luke’s account depicts the publican, by faith alone, crying to God to “be merciful” to him. The word he used means ‘to be appeased toward’. And the immediate result was that the publican was able to return to his home “justified” – where the tense of the verb denotes a completed act that is neither reversed or repeated, an act that cannot be supplemented or diminished (Romans 8:30, Hebrews 10:2). It is entirely the act of God’s grace (Romans 3:25).
A further key characteristic of justification is that it is legal or forensic in nature. As a result of Christ’s righteousness, many shall be made righteous (Romans 5:19); but it should be noted that the word here translated “made” is indicative of a legal act. It means ‘to appoint’ or ‘to constitute’. It defines the place of legal acceptance possessed by the sinner through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. In his first epistle, John sums up this acceptance in the thrilling statement, “as he (Christ) is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).
Despite the clear and unambiguous teaching of Scripture in respect of this vital doctrine, confusion has prevailed and error has abounded. Very often, these developments have been the outcome of failure to understand and appreciate the legal nature of justification.
Before the Reformation, justification was almost invariably confused with regeneration and sanctification. The renowned scholar Thomas Aquinas taught that the first element of justification was an infusion of grace – on the basis of which the second element, forgiveness of sin, was given. And so, from this perspective, the foundation of Roman Catholic teaching on justification by baptism (when grace was infused) was laid. This was developed further with the assertion that the justification so received could be increased or diminished or even lost depending on one’s actions. The ultimate conclusion of this line of teaching is the notion that justification rests upon the personal merit of the individual.
It must also be observed that Roman Catholicism confuses justification with sanctification. It teaches that as a result of the grace infused at the moment of baptism, the subject is enabled to obey or conform to particular rites and ceremonies of the church, and thereby become holy, and so find a degree of favour with God. This is to place sanctification before justification. And it results in justification being viewed as a process – a blatant contradiction of Bible teaching, for justification is at once complete, and irreversible.
The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of justification was formally endorsed by decrees adopted and promulgated by the Council of Trent (1545-63). This council was convened specifically to counter the teachings advanced by the Protestant Reformation. It affirmed that justification consists of the two elements already highlighted – the infusion of grace by the act of baptism, and the forgiveness of sins. But it is vital to note that, for Trent, the first of the two elements was the crucial one, with the second being merely supplemental. For Roman Catholics, what matters is the baptism and the grace it allegedly brings, enabling the individual to partake in the rites and rituals of the church, confirmation, confession, penance, et al. And, of course, only as one performs these works, is there the possibility of the forgiveness of sins – only the possibility, for no-one may ever be assured of possessing that blessing.
Neither must it be assumed that, five hundred years on, the Roman Catholic Church has changed. It has not. This teaching on justification remains, being clearly documented in many writings recently receiving the imprimatur of ‘Mother Church’. Thus, to determine present day official teaching, one needs only to turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). Here, in paragraphs 196-7, the Roman Catholic Church affirms that “by baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ”. This element of ‘baptismal grace’ is as much evident now, as it was back in the sixteenth century!
Once more, the Catechism promotes the unscriptural view that the sinner can merit salvation and eternal life: “Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves, and for others, the graces needed for our sanctification…and for the attainment of eternal life.”
Since the attitude to the doctrine of justification indicates whether a church is standing or falling, there can be no doubt that the Roman Catholic Church was, and is, fallen! It fails the test. It will bring inevitable reproach upon us to say so, but, on the basis of Biblical considerations, that Church cannot be deemed truly Christian. This is why we respond to it as we do. With such a Church, there can be no fellowship. To enter into communion with a body that embraces and propagates the most glaring heresy, and pronounces anathemas on those who declare and defend the truth, would be a gross betrayal of the Gospel. Many with a mind to pursue an ecumenical agenda will follow such a path, but the true Christian must stand apart. He cannot lend credence to a body that has long flouted Scripture, and that has hounded those who dared believe the simple truth of justification by faith alone. He must stand where Luther stood – He can do no other.
Rev. John Greer.