On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses concerning clerical abuses and indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg. This famous event is often considered that launching point for the Protestant Reformation.

The chief concern for Luther and the other reformers was the doctrine of justification. It was, to use Calvin’s language, the “main hinge on which religion turns.” And the doctrine of justification is no less important today than it was 500 years ago.

There are five key concepts every Protestant should grasp if they are to understanding the reformer’s (and the Bible’s) doctrine of justification.

First, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator. This is Martin Luther’s famous Latin phrase which means “At the same time, justified and a sinner.” The Catechism powerfully reminds us that even though we are right with God, we still violate his commands, feel the sting of conscience, and battle against indwelling sin. On this side of the consummation, we will always be sinning saints, righteous wretches, and on occasion even justified jerks. God does not acquit us of our guilt based upon our works, but because we trust “him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).

Second, our right standing with God is based on an alien righteousness. Alien doesn’t refer to an E.T. spirituality. It means we are justified because of a righteousness that is not our own. I am not right with God because of my righteousness, but because “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” has been credited to me. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die” wrote August Toplady in the old hymn. We contribute nothing to our salvation. The name by which every Christian must be called is “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).

Third, the righteousness of Christ is ours by imputation, not by impartation. That is to say, we are not made holy, or infused with goodness as if we possessed it in ourselves, but rather Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account.

Fourth, we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic Church acknowledged that the Christian was saved by faith; it was the alone part they wouldn’t allow. In fact, the Council of Trent from the 16th century Catholic counter-reformation declared anathema those who believe in either justification by imputation or justification by faith alone. But evangelical faith has always held that “all I need to do is accept the gift of God with a believing heart.” True, justifying faith must show itself in good works. That’s what James 2 is all about. But these works serve as corroborating evidence, not as the ground of our justification. We are justified by faith without deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28; Titus 3:5). The gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:30-31), not “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and cooperate with transforming grace and you shall be saved.” There is nothing we contribute to our salvation but our sin, no merit we bring but Christ’s, and nothing necessary for justification except for faith alone.

Finally, with all this talk about the necessity of faith, the Catechism explains that faith is only an instrumental cause in our salvation. In other words, faith is not what God finds acceptable in us. In fact, strictly speaking, faith itself does not justify. Faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, have communion with him, and share in all his benefits. It is the object of our faith that matters. If you venture out on to a frozen pond, it isn’t your faith that keeps you from crashing into the water. True, it takes faith to step onto the pond, but it’s the object of your faith, the twelve inches of ice, that keeps you safe. Believe in Christ with all your heart, but don’t put your faith in your faith. Your experience of trusting Christ will ebb and flow. So be sure to rest in Jesus Christ and not your faith in him. He alone is the one who died for our sakes and was raised for our justification. Believe this, and you too will be saved.

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32 thoughts on “Five Key Concepts in the Reformation Understanding of Justification”

  1. Great summary of the Reformation doctrine. I’m not gonna lie though, I’d love to have seen a short section, or expansion on the subject of union with Christ in connection with imputation, or more in “faith” section. Without the “in Christ” structure the whole legal fiction charge gets raised, and “imputation” and “alien righteousness” start to come apart. Of course, this is a blog post and ya can’t have everything.

    Happy Reformation Day!

    Also, in case ya’ll are looking for some way to celebrate Reformation Day, here’s an idea: http://derekzrishmawy.com/2012/10/30/happy-reformation-day-now-repent/

  2. jp says:

    I have to be honest: part of me cringes at the idea of being “simul iustus et peccator”.
    i know i’m full of sin, and can’t do anything to fix it. on the other hand, I know God offers grace for the truly repentant. But if i’m justified once and for all, then why does, for example, Jesus teach us that when we pray, we should ask forgiveness for our trespasses, if He knew that we were once and forever legally declared righteous? it would seem like a mere formality.
    i really don’t know. i haven’t read much of Luther, but this idea of having a righteous account before God, even though i sin, strikes me as…unsettling.

  3. Adam Ford says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for this succinct summary. This is perfect for sharing.

    To my fellow siblings of the Reformed blogosphere: Happy Reformation Day! Viva la Reformacion!

  4. JP,

    Those are great questions. A couple of things to keep in mind that might help:

    1. The whole “simultaneously just and a sinner” can be thought of in light of the fact that we are united to Christ. See, when we place our faith in Christ, we are united to him, kind of like when you say, “I do”, you’re united to your spouse. Now say a very poor man with many debts marries a very rich and generous woman. He himself is quite poor, but not, by virtue of their union, all of his debts are hers, and all of her riches become his. Or, again, in the marriage, I get married and I am truly, legally counted as married to my wife. Still, in myself, I all sorts of habits and mindsets left over from my single, unmarried life. In a sense, I’m married, but single. The rest of my life is the process of learning how to be what I already am–a husband.
    2. As for asking for forgiveness: Yes, we are once and for all forgiven. Still, we are in a relationship that needs to be kept up. In a sense, God’s once and for all forgiveness in Christ, once again, like wedding vows. When my wife pledges herself to me, it’s like she says, “Your sins will never put us out of relationship–they will never issue in divorce.” Still, when I sin against her, there is relational distance that can happen. That still needs to be dealt with. I still need to ask for forgiveness in order to keep up the health of our permanent relationship. On top of that, one way of thinking about it is that we are the ones who need to ask forgiveness and know that we are forgiven, otherwise our constant sin will lead to layers of guilt and shame that create a barrier between God’s heart and ours, from OUR end.

    There’s more to it than that, but I hope that helps a bit.

  5. Rick Owen says:

    WARNING: Churches can affirm Luther’s grasp of justification but still have their lampstand removed.

    http://www.facebook.com/notes/rick-owen/having-your-lampstand-removed-love-makes-the-difference/115511925273944

  6. John says:

    JP, Great question about the need to ask for forgiveness even though we are forgiven. I’m stuck on that question myself as well. I both can’t quite let go of the habit but also question if it is a denial of once and for all forgiveness. Is the Lord’s prayer an artifact of the OT (ie with the petition for forgiveness)? Some point out that the new covenant does not truly begin (and the temple curtain torn) until Christ died so at times his teaching was teaching of the old covenant because of the need to demonstrate its inferiority and futility and thus point to the new covenant.

  7. JP says:

    Hi Derek,

    Thank you for your response…I appreciate the analogy!

    People (I hope!) get married because they love each other, in spite of each other’s flaws. And, I suppose, to some degree, a woman agrees to marry a man knowing that there will be times when he may not be World’s Best Husband.

    But hopefully no one enters a marriage presuming on his or her spouse’s kindness and forgiveness. Along those same lines, it seems to me a person shouldn’t presume to know what his actions will be in the future, let alone presume that his wife’s forgiveness (assuming she does forgive him) means that she won’t divorce him, particularly if he’s committed an egregious sin against her, and against their vows Now, hopefully a person’s actions toward his spouse will always be done out of love for her. But what about when they’re not? Is it any less harmful toward her, or the relationship, especially if it’s in the area of lust? in the case of lust, the vows are still being broken (i’m thinking here of what Jesus taught regarding lust/adultery).

    in light of this, i think about Paul’s warnings in some of his letters, to the effect that if we continue sinning, we will not inherit the kingdom of God. now, i realize there are different interpretations on these passages, like if you wind up damned, you were never saved to begin with. but paul doesn’t seem to suggest this teaching, only that if you continue to sin even though you were delivered, you will fall just as the Israelites fell in the desert, despite being delivered. and they WERE delivered from bondage. but they were given a choice, in the end.
    All this is to say that in considering the Lord’s Prayer in light of the teaching that we’re forgiven all our past, present, AND FUTURES sin, the teaching on future sin being forgiven seems incompatible with the Lord’s Prayer. Add to this the warnings Paul issues, and I get the sense that maybe this idea should be revisited.

  8. JP says:

    it just came to mind (re: Paul’s reference to Israel in 1 Cor 10) that Israel hadn’t YET arrived at the promise land, so in a sense, even though they were delivered from physical bondage, while in the desert they were still given the choice to be faithful to God, and so enter the the promise land.

    i guess the key point here is that their faithfulness to God–especially considering the awesome display of power they had just seen!!–was required.

    In the same way, i know we need to be faithful to our vows to love and serve Christ. otherwise…well, here’s where Paul’s warning comes in, and where Paul’s warning to be faithful (and Jesus’ enjoining us to always pray for forgiveness) appears incompatible with “your past, present, and future sins are forgiven.” i hope i’m making sense….

  9. Tony L says:

    “True, justifying faith must show itself in good works. That’s what James 2 is all about. But these works serve as corroborating evidence, not as the ground of our justification.”

    This is not what James says though, as I’ve shown you before. James says “faith was completed by works” (v. 22). Works are not merely corroborating evidence; they make the faith complete and living. And without this completeness and life through works, there is no salvation.

    And no good Catholic claims that good works are the “ground of our justification.” That’s just a misrepresentation of the Catholic position. Faith and grace are the ground of our justification, works are the fruit, and Jesus explicitly says in the gospels that those who bear no fruit (in works) will go to into fire (hell).

  10. Andrew A. says:

    Tony:

    I am a protestant and I just recently have been led by the Holy Spirit to this interpretation of James 2 as well. I feel that Catholics today are widely misunderstood on this. Here is a great link on the joint declaration on justification.

    -issue.http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html

    I just don’t see how you can completely change what James is saying. It is works that complete faith and therefore an aspect of justification. Then we even go on to James 2:24 (ESV) “You see that a person is justified not by faith alone.” How many times does James have to say “justified by works” before people will understand. I really do understand what the Catholics are saying and I feel this has really hurt the protestant faith because the wording has confused many to trust in a “nominal beliefism”. We must not put Romans 3:28 in competition with James 2:24 and then pick. They are both authoritative inerrant verses in the Bible.

  11. Andrew A. says:

    It is also scary to me how badly Luther wanted to remove the epistle of James from the canon of scripture….

  12. Catholic T says:

    Catholics and Protestants use the terms differently. What Catholic theology calls justification is what Protestants call justification PLUS sanctification.

    First Point: The inclination toward sin (concupiscence) is not removed by justification. But this is not the same as being in the state of sin. The justified person is not simultaneously righteous and in the state of mortal sin.

    Second Point: The article is correct about our initial transition from being unjustified to the state of justification, but thereafter grace empowers us to “merit” further justification. If this were not the case, we would do “sanctification” on our own power, which is not possible. This is also how scripture can speak of Abraham (as an example) as being “justified” at different times (not just one time only).

    Third Point: This, as Alister McGrath points out, is Luther’s total historical novelty. If our righteousness is only imputed to us, and not infused in us, we would do sanctification by our own power (which isn’t possible). This is Luther’s schizophrenia because he also spoke of the Holy Spirit “indwelling” us.

    Fourth Point: The problem here arises because the terms are used differently. Catholic theology defines justification as an ongoing process (what Protestants would consider justification PLUS sanctification) so when the Council of Trent speaks of works in regard to justification, what Protestants hear is that the sinner works to become justified. But this is not what is meant. Salvific works are after “initial” justification, not prior to it, or what Protestants call sanctification. Furthermore, the only time the expression “faith alone” is used in scripture is where it is said that justification is not by faith alone. So the expression does not employ biblical terminology.

    Fifth Point: no debate.

  13. Catholic T says:

    There really is no difference in substance on this issue. I’m not just trying to be nice, the facts bear it out.

  14. Doris Ann Esch says:

    Another great read. Durinda this will be of interest to you also.

  15. While I am still robustly Protestant, I have found myself moving away from the notion that the righteousness of Christ is merely imputed to us — such a view reeks too much of nominalism and voluntarism for my taste. I’ve come to prefer a more ontological and participatory understanding of our relationship to Christ’s righteousness, so I guess that means I’ve become “less Reformed.”

  16. Catholic T says:

    Caleb,

    If Righteousness is merely imputed to us and not infused in us, then we would do sanctification by our own power which is not possible.

  17. Good point, Catholic T. Interestingly, while this article re-asserts the classic Reformed claim that justification by faith alone is the sine qua non of true religion, I think Point 3 really gets to the bottom of the fundamental difference between Catholic and Reformed Christians: the notion that we, or any other material thing for that matter, can actually be made holy.

  18. Thomas Y. says:

    A Classic story of justification is the following:

    A pharisee and a tax collector enter into the temple, the tax collector says ‘I thank you God that I am not like other man: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income’. But the tax collector , standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

    Justification occurs when someone truly in their heart repents from their sin and seeks the mercy which comes from God. It is a humility that surpasses all understanding.

    I think that both catholics and protestants needs to learn from this. For protestants, they need to understand that justification happens when someone repents of their sin, in other words, when they change in their heart. Too often you hear “I plea the blood of Jesus” and there is no emphasis on the need for change to be right with God. And Catholics needs to realize that many people across the world do this and are justified without sacraments.

  19. Catholic T says:

    Caleb: I agree. Alister McGrath calls this Luther’s theological novelty in his book Iustitia Dei.

    Thomas Y: The desire for repentance is itself a response to a prior grace received. Catholic theology would say that sacraments are the ordinary means of grace, but that God is not limited to them. A previenient grace moves a person to the desire for God and the sacraments instituted by Him.

  20. John Young says:

    Thank you for all of your posts, but especially this one, for the clarity provides both for me personally but also to those to whom I minister. I especially appreciate the truth and the imagery from your closing paragraph. I anticipate using it in the future (with proper credit given, of course)

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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