058 Justification by Faith Alone?

R. C. Sproul shares Martin Luther’s conviction that justification by faith alone is “the article upon which the church stands or falls” (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). Fearing Evangelicals have seriously compromised their heritage, Sproul sets forth a classic Reformed position in Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, c. 1995). In his opinion, “no doctrinal dispute has ever been contested more fiercely or with such long-term consequences as the one over justification. There were other ancillary issues debated in the sixteenth century, but none so central or so heated as justification” (p. 18).

After noting some contemporary views which concern him–i.e. John MacArthur’s “Lordship salvation,” Pentecostalism, and the especially the document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT)–Sproul explains and defends the case for classic Calvinism. He rejects the affirmation of ECT “that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of Christ. . . .” (p. 35). The ECT stance certainly indicates we are justified by faith, but not faith alone, but to the Reformers, Sproul says, “”It was the sola of sola fide that was the central point of dispute” (p. 36).

This leads him to revisit Luther’s break with Rome which hinged on his commitment to sola fide. Everything at stake in the Reformation, Sproul insists, stands or falls with this doctrine. “The conflict over justification by faith alone boils down to this: Is the ground of our justification the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, or the righteousness of Christ working within us?” (p. 73). Sola fide insists that we are justified solely by Christ’s righteousness, something extra nos, outside us, totally unrelated to our inner condition.

Such justification includes: notitia, assensus, and fiducia–knowledge, assent, trust. We must have knowledge–cognitive propositional truth–as a basis for faith. Then we must give intellectual assent to the truth. Added to these two items of the mind, the will must be engaged, trusting the truth revealed to us. Such justification is forensic in nature–we are declared righteous, not transformed into righteous persons, by God.

Roman Catholics, especially at the Council of Trent, affirmed that sinners are justified thusly: “‘ . . . not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure.. . .'” (p. 97). Both Catholics and Protestants agree that God’s legal decree effects righteousness, but Catholics insist He declares “just” those who have been transformed by His grace whereas Protestants maintain He declares sinners “just” before any regenerative change has transpired. Catholics, as Trent makes clear, hold that “‘ . . . we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, ‘without which it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6) and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification'” (p. 121).

Catholics, Alister McGrath says, developed Augustine’s understanding of iustificare: “‘Augustine understands the verb iustificare to mean ‘to make righteous,’ an understanding of the term which he appears to have held throughout his working life'” (p. 99). Consequently, McGrath says, “‘Man’s righteousness, effected in justification, is regarded by Augustine as inherent rather than imputed. . . . The righteousness which man thus receives, although originating from God, is nevertheless located within man, and can be said to be his, part of his being and intrinsic to his person'” (ibid).

Thus Sproul says “The question of inherent versus imputed righteousness goes to the heart of the Reformation debate” (ibid). Here he sides with Calvin and Turretin, insisting that any compromise with sola fide negates the Reformed stance.

While they allowed that grace may well be infused into the believer following his justification, they adamantly held that he is justified only because Christ’ righteousness has been imputed to him.

Consequently, Protestants taught that sola gratia is “operative” rather than “cooperative,” irresistible rather than resistible. At issue was the definition of “prevenient grace”–both sides emphasized its pre-justifying activity, but the Reformers declared it justifies sinners independently of human agency. There is no “free will” whereby man responds to God’s grace. God extends His grace to us, unilaterally saving us simply because He decides to.

On the contrary, Catholics–also claiming to trust sola gratia–hold, “as the new Catechism of the Catholic Church states it, ‘God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him'” (p. 141). God’s grace comes to us, and is thus His unmerited favor. But for it to justify us–make us right with Him–we must freely accept it. Thus our “works,” our cooperation with God, accompany our faith in a process which justifies. Justification, ultimately, results from and depends upon our sanctification

Canon 32 of the Council of Trent made this clear, anathematizing anyone who “‘says that good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increased in glory'” (p. 157).

Luther and Calvin, of course, insisted that faith alone justifies, and that certain good “works” follow as a matter of course. Good works, righteous living, bear witness to God’s justifying work, but all our efforts are flawed by sin and thus have no bearing on our justification. Sanctification results from justification and is expected but not really necessary for salvation.

Siding with Luther and Calvin, Sproul argues that modern Evangelicals face a “crisis,” for they seem willing to compromise their raison d’etre. Sola fide seems to have become less than an article of faith worth living and dying for. He particularly views the concord established by Evangelicals and Catholics Together with alarm.

To understand the classic Reformed position, re-stated in our day, Faith Alone is a fine presentation–clear, cogent, accurate in its historical details. It certainly helps us who are Wesleyans to understand why we differ from some of our “Protestant” brethren on this issue.

* * * * *

That difference gains clarity by reading John Henry Newman’s Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 9th impression, 1908), which explains the doctrine in ways somewhat more akin to Wesleyanism. Written during his Anglican years, while the Oxford Movement was reviving piety and theological discussion, these lectures typify the via media between Protestantism and Catholicism charted by significant thinkers in the Church of England. In Newman’s judgment, “Justification comes through the Sacraments; is received by faith; consists in God’s inward presence; and lives in obedience” (p. 278). To reduce justification to faith alone violates the totality of biblical truth.

The central question demanding decision is this: are we declared righteous or actually made righteous? With extraordinary attention to detail, continuously citing biblical passages, sensitive to the nuances of language and logic, Newman seeks to present his understanding of the truth. He resolutely refutes and rejects the sola fide stance of Luther and Calvin, contending that it falsely separates faith and love, allowing salvation by the former without the latter. In Newman’s judgment “Faith is but an instrument, acceptable when its possessor is acceptable” (p. 254), not the singular condition whereby we are justified. Indeed, though “devils cannot have love, humility, meekness, purity, or compassion,–they have faith” (ibid.). So faith alone certainly cannot make us right with God!

This means, Newman explains, that we are “justified, not only by or through (as our Article [in the Anglican Creed] words it), but on account of faith” (p. 22). In fact, by their insistence on imputation, neither faith nor love actually justifies–only Christ coming to and covering us up with His blood finally justifies. Consequently, Luther “taught that the Moral Law is not binding on the conscience of the Christian; that Christ fulfilled it by his own obedience; that He is our Righteousness, in the sense of His obedience being the substitute for ours in the sight of God’s justice; and that Faith is the instrument by which that Righteousness becomes ours” (p. 24). Man is effectively removed from meaningful participation in the salvation process.

To counter Luther’s view, Newman employs Scripture, which in its entirety–not limited “to one or two texts only, detached from their context” (p. 37) as Luther often does–declares that God graciously enables us to acceptably serve Him, appropriating an actual righteousness which is “not a shadow but a substance, not a name but a power, not an imputation but an inward work” (p. 37). In fact, Scripture makes no distinction between righteousness and holiness, so one could hardly by declared righteous without being holy. Importantly, “God’s word, I say, effects what it announces” (p. 81). To imagine God would call us what we’re in fact not runs counter to His truthfulness! Speaking with deep conviction, Newman brands Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone “a new gospel, unless three hundred years stand for eighteen hundred,” which threatens to steal from us the essence and power of the Gospel, which includes “the real participation of the Son, and justification through the Spirit” (p. 57).

The system stemming from Luther and Calvin, Newman believed, substituted an egocentric religion–a subjective “experience” labeled “faith”–for Christ insofar as it stressed “believing” rather than “the Object of belief, on the comfort and persuasiveness of the doctrine rather than on the doctrine itself. And in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ; not simply in looking to Christ, but in ascertaining that we look to Christ, not in His Divinity and Atonement, but in our conversion and our faith in those truths” (p. 325). As a consequence, “prayer and praise languish, and only preaching flourishes,” for we focus on ourselves and our own thoughts rather than on our “Maker, Redeemer, Sanctifier, and Judge” (p. 337).

Rather than faith, Newman argues that love is the “formal cause of justification.” Contrasting Luther’s teaching with Augustine’s, which he embraces, Newman asserts that with God’s help we can fulfill the Moral Law, live rightly, be changed in the depths of our heart, and please God through obeying Him. To Luther, “faith is taken instead of righteousness; Augustine, in earnest of righteousness;–Luther, that faith is essential, because it is a substitute for holiness; Augustine, because it is the commencement of holiness; . . . –Luther would call faith the tree, and works the fruit; Augustine, rather, the inward life, or grace of God, or love, the tree, and renewal of the fruit” (p. 59).

We are, Newman says, justified because the Spirit of God breathes into us the “justifying Word,” thereby making “our works ‘pleasing’ and ‘acceptable’ to God” (p. 91). In our openness to His Presence, in our obedience to His Will, we in fact fulfill the Law, for, as St. Paul said, “Christ came that ‘the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” He says, ‘in us,’ not only externally to us” (p. 91).

When Christ becomes our Savior, He enters into us, graciously making us righteous. Repeatedly, consistently, the Scripture makes this clear. To be made righteous means more than being accounted righteousness as the Reformers claimed. When St. Paul says we “become righteous” he means we actually become righteous through the gracious impartation of Christ’s righteousness. “Christ’s righteousness, which is given us, makes us righteous, because it is righteousness; it imparts itself, and not something else” (p. 108). We do not make ourselves righteous, but God, in mercy, makes us Christ-like.

As Newman explains it there is a bond between “justification and renewal. The are both included in the one great gift of God, the indwelling of Christ in the Christian soul. The indwelling is ipso facto our justification and sanctification, as its necessary results. It is the Divine Presence that justifies us, not faith, as say the Protestant schools, not renewal as say the Roman. The word of justification is the substantive living Word of God, entering the soul, illuminating and cleansing it, as fire brightens and purifies material substances. He who justifies also sanctifies, because it is He. The first blessing runs into the second as its necessary limit; and the second being rejected, carries away with it the first” (p. 154).

As our Risen Lord, Christ lifts His followers, making them one with God and with one another. Christ’s Incarnation shows Him “taking our nature up to God,” entering into our humanity; His Resurrection indicates that “we are baptized and hidden anew in God’s glory, in that Shekinah of light and purity which we lost when Adam fell,–that we are new-created, transformed, spiritualized, glorified in the Divine Nature,–that through the participation of Christ, we receive, as through a channel, the true Presence of God within and without us, imbuing us with sanctity and immortality. This, I repeat, is our justification, our ascent through Christ to God, or God’s descent through Christ to us” (p. 219). Just as surely as the Incarnation and Resurrection describe actual events, so too Christ’s work in our hearts actually transforms us.

This is not to denigrate faith, however. Trusting in God’s grace, sensing soul comfort thereby, plays a central role in the Christian life. Where those advocating sola fide err–as Newman would say Sproul errs–is in claiming faith alone satisfies “without anything else, without obedience, love, self-denial, consistent conduct, conscientiousness, that this mere trust in Christ’s mercy, existing in a mind which has as yet no other religious feeling, will necessarily renew the soul and lead to good works” (p. 263).

Newman’s presentation tries to establish the Anglican position, the via media, between Protestantism and

Catholicism, though it seems evident he tilts heavily in the Catholic direction on the doctrine of justification. His subsequent conversion to Catholicism can certainly be understood while reading this treatise. Wherever one places him, however, his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification provide a searching analysis of this critical issue. (Asone moves from Sproul to Newman, I might add, one instantly recognizes the difference between popular contemporary thinkers like Sproul and masterful theologians like Newman!))

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Though not precisely dealing with justification, let me recommend a fine recent book by Doug Webster: The Easy Yoke (Colorado Springs: NavPress, c. 1995). Webster pastors the First Presbyterian Church in San Diego, and his book reveals pastoral ministry at its best: applying biblical truth to peoples’ lives.

The Easy Yoke takes us through the Sermon on the Mount, showing that the disciplined life is in fact “easy,” just as staying healthy through exercise and good diet is easier than patching things up as they fall apart. Ironically, in our high-tech society, where all sorts of “labor-saving” devices abound, folks feel pushed and stressed and bent out of shape. “In our effort to get more, we come up with less. ‘Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak,’ writes C.S. Lewis. ‘We are half-heated creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased'” (p. 169).

To be truly pleased, to restore some “ease” to our lives, we need to find solace in such things as righteousness, truth, strong relationships, obedience. “It sounds almost too simple to say, too good to be true, but obedience is the very essence of the strategy of Jesus for living. It is the secret of the easy yoke: the desire to obey and to please god comes from within through a personal relationship with God in Christ” (p. 100).

That’s what the Beatitudes promise us. “Happiness Is Serious Business” starts us off. For most Americans “happiness” means pleasures of various sorts. Disneyland’s sign, claiming to be “The Happiest Place on Earth” rather sums it up for many. Jesus, however, said we’d find happiness–we’d be blessed–when we become poor in spirit and mourn and hunger for righteousness. Rather than blame others (or “society”) for our problems, Jesus tells us to accept responsibility for life, to humble ourselves and follow Him. “What we want is affirmation and approval,” Webster says, but “what we need is deliverance” (p. 49).

Deliverance comes to the humble, the meek, who let God be God and to let Him do His work in our world. This means, for some of us, less worry and work for the Church, heeding Hilary of Tours’ warning against “‘a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him'” (p. 62). It also comes to those who enter the “narrow gate” which Jesus opens. “The followers of Jesus have chosen the path of revelation instead of the highway of relativism. there is room for every kind of ideology, system, loyalty, and belief on the road that leads to destruction, but there is only room for truth on the way that leads to life. Anything goes on the road that leads to nowhere” (p. 194).

Packed with searching statements as the one just quoted, tying biblical truths to today’s issues, buoyant in its optimism of grace, The Easy Yoke is easy to read and powerful to ponder.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *