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The crisis regarding the doctrine of justification that provoked the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century has not yet been resolved. Thus, the Reformation is by no means over. The dispute over justification that split the church back then threatens to fracture contemporary, evangelical Christianity. At issue during the Reformation was the relationship of justification to sanctification. It was a question of the order of salvation. The difference is not a tempest in a teapot; it’s one by which salvation itself is defined.
The Roman Catholic Church depended upon the Latin fathers who understood the doctrine of justification against the background of the Latin word iustificare. It is this word from which we get our English word justify, literally, “to make righteous.” However, the actual Greek term that is used in the New Testament means “to declare righteous.” What, then, is the difference? In the Protestant understanding of the New Testament, justification occurs when God declares that a person is just. That declaration takes place the moment a person puts his or her faith in Christ. Sanctification is the process that follows justification by which those who have been declared just by God are actually conformed to the image of Christ. But the glorious good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to wait until we become just in order to be counted just by God.
Catholics argued in the sixteenth century and have continued to argue, as recently as the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1994, that God will declare a person just only when that person has achieved inherent righteousness. True, that righteousness cannot be gained apart from grace, apart from faith, or apart from Christ. But with the help of these means of grace, the Catholic argues, that righteousness may and must be attained before God will make His declaration that a person is just. That is why, according to Rome, if a person dies with imperfections or impurities still present in his soul, before he can go to heaven, he must first go to purgatory, where his abiding imperfections are purged away. That time in purgatory could last millions of years in order for the cleansing necessary to bring about total purity. What was anathema to Rome about Martin Luther’s teaching, among other things, was his famous formula defining justification as bringing sinners into a state whereby we are simul iustus et peccator—at the same time just and sinner. We are just by virtue of God declaring us just in Christ, but we still struggle with abiding sin.
Another way of looking at the difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification and the classic Protestant doctrine is the difference between what may be called “analytical” justification and “synthetic” justification.
An analytical statement is true by definition. For example, we may say that “a bachelor is an unmarried man.” In that statement, there is nothing in the predicate that isn’t contained in the subject. However, if we say, “the bachelor is a poor man,” poorness is not automatically contained within the notion of bachelorhood, and so we have added something to the concept of bachelorhood by mentioning poverty. This something that is added makes this a synthetic statement. For Rome, justification occurs only when under analysis God sees that a person is inherently just. In the Protestant view, our justification is synthetic because God judges us not on the basis of our own righteousness, but on the basis of a righteousness that has been added to us by faith, namely, the righteousness of Christ.
When we argue that justification is by faith alone, we mean that all that is necessary in order for a person to receive all of the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work is the presence of actual saving faith. Rome agrees that faith is necessary for justification, as well as grace and Christ, but Catholics struggle with the term alone. They do not believe that justification is by faith alone but by faith plus works (the works of satisfaction that are a necessary ingredient of the sacrament of penance). Rome believes that justification is by grace plus merit—the merit that is gained by doing works of satisfaction—by Christ plus a person’s own righteousness. Again, we can’t have that righteousness without the presence of faith, grace, and Christ. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, that righteousness is truly the person’s own righteousness.
The ultimate issue between Rome and the Reformation is the issue of the ground of justification. Luther rightly argued that the basis of our justification is our connection to “an alien righteousness”—a righteousness that, properly speaking, is not our own but belongs to someone else. It is a righteousness that Luther spoke of as extra nos—apart from us. That righteousness, of course, is the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to all who believe in Him.
In our own day, a full-scale assault has been launched within evangelicalism against the classical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Arguments are raised attacking the concept of imputation and the concept of Christ’s achieving of His own righteousness through His active obedience to the Mosaic law and serving as our representative as the second and final Adam. These issues are being debated strenuously even now within the bounds of evangelical seminaries, particularly in light of the influence of the British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, who, while rejecting both the Roman Catholic and the Reformation views of justification, has particularly raised issues about imputation.
This crisis again confronts the church with what Luther once called “the issue upon which the church stands or falls.” Without the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the gospel is not merely compromised, it is lost altogether. And in the place of the good news comes the bad news: that before we can ever enter our heavenly rest, we must, with whatever means of grace are available, reach the point, either in this world or in purgatory, where we attain a pure righteousness that is inherent in us. If I have to wait for that in order to enter into my rest, I cannot imagine anything other than an eternity of restlessness.