By Dr. Herbert Samworth

This is Part 2 of a series that explores the ECT – Evangelicals and Catholics Together – and its basic tenets. Click here to read Part 1 on the “Origins of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

We are returning to the series of articles that we began several months ago regarding Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The second statement issued by the joint committee was entitled The Gift of Salvation and dealt with the doctrine of justification. Because of the importance of this doctrine, we have dedicated this article to an in-depth analysis of justification and its importance. The reader must have a clear biblical understanding of justification before any attempt can be made to analyze the statements made in The Gift of Salvation.

Before we begin, it must be stressed that an understanding of justification is critical for the Christian. We live in times when the importance of doctrine is not stressed as strongly as it should be. Although there will be the use of some technical language, we will attempt to make this article as lucid as possible.

Moving Cause of Salvation – God’s compassion and love for lost sinners
Meritorious Cause of Salvation – Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross
Formal Cause of Salvation – imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner and the imputation of the sinner’s guilt to Christ
Instrumental Cause of Salvation – faith alone in Christ alone

The doctrine of justification by faith was the primary doctrine recovered at the Reformation. Through his struggles to find acceptance with God, Luther’s understanding was opened to see that the righteousness, or justice, that God’s holiness required was not an impossible standard to which God held sinful man. Rather, the righteousness of God was a free gift in Christ and received by faith alone. When Luther came to understand this doctrine, he thought he had entered the gates of paradise. What did Luther come to understand by this experience and what do we need to know about the doctrine?

We must understand two critical truths. First, God is just or righteous. The standard that He demands is based on His character and cannot be lowered. Second, we must realize we are sinners who are incapable of measuring up to God’s standard of righteousness. Although Luther was a monk and did everything that he could to win acceptance with God through his own efforts, they were unavailing. Man can never approach God on the basis of his own works or righteousness. See Titus 3:5.

We must understand that what God demanded (perfect righteousness), God provided. How did God provide this? The perfect righteousness required by God’s character came through the Person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the world to save sinners. See 1 Timothy 1:15; John 3:17. The initiative in salvation came from God Himself. God’s compassion and love for lost sinners is what is called the moving cause of salvation. John 3:16, perhaps the best known verse in the Bible, states that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

We must understand the work of Jesus Christ. What relationship is there between Jesus Christ and the sinner? First, He took our nature (human nature, yet without sin) into union with His divine nature. He became the God-man. See Philippians 2:7. He submitted Himself under the law of God and obeyed it perfectly. By His obedience, Jesus Christ earned or merited eternal life. Jesus Christ was the only person who has ever obeyed perfectly all the demands of God’s law. In theological terms, this is called Christ’s active obedience. Jesus Christ was a righteous person. Although Jesus Christ was righteous and merited eternal life, He died in the place of guilty sinners by enduring the penalty of a broken law. The Scriptures state that all have sinned and are come short of the glory of God. See Romans 3:23. The penalty of a broken law is death in all aspects: physical, spiritual, and eternal. See Romans 6:23. In theological terms, this is called Christ’s passive obedience in paying the penalty of a broken law.

We must understand that Christ’s death on the cross for sinners was accomplished in His role as their substitute. God ordained that Christ should be the representative of His people. See Romans 5:12-21. As a result, Christ did not act for Himself but as the substitute on behalf of those He represented. In theological terms, this is called the meritorious cause of salvation: the substitionary atonement of Christ for sinners.

We must understand how a person receives the benefits of Christ’s work accomplished for him on the cross, i. e how a person becomes a Christian. We speak of the great exchange by which the righteousness of Christ (both active and passive) is given to the sinner. This righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner. Imputation is a legal term that expresses how something is put to the credit or account of another.

There was no compelling reason why Christ had to die. He had kept perfectly the law of God and merited eternal life through His obedience. Voluntarily, He took the place of guilty sinners on the cross and paid the penalty of their sin. The perfect righteousness of Christ was imputed to the person and the person’s guilt was imputed to Christ. See 2 Corinthians 5:21. We are speaking in legal terms because righteousness and guilt are legal conditions before God. Because they are legal conditions, they can be imputed or put to the account of another. In theological terms the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner and the imputation of the sinner’s guilt to Christ is called the formal cause of salvation. Therefore, we say that a person is justified when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. See Romans 4:24.

We must understand the answer to this crucial question: how does the individual receive this righteousness or how is it imputed to him? The Word of God knows of only one way. It is imputed by faith alone. See Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 3:26. Faith, in its essence, is a renunciation of any human attempt to meet God’s demands, but is trust and reliance in Christ alone. Martin Luther knew that he could never reach the standard that a righteous God demanded. No matter how hard he tried, he came short. In theological terms, faith is called the instrumental cause of salvation because faith is the means by which righteousness is imputed to the person. The Bible is clear that salvation is earned not by works of righteousness that we have done. See Titus 3:5. Why is it impossible to be justified by works? It is impossible because our righteousness is imperfect. It is incapable of meeting the standard of perfect righteousness that God’s character demands. Any person who attempts to approach God on the basis of his own works can never be justified. An approach to God on the basis of works was closed when Adam and Eve sinned against God. See the biblical account in Genesis 3.

We must also understand that faith is adequate to meet the sinner’s need. Why is this so? It is because faith trusts in the Person of Christ alone. The righteousness of Christ is sufficient for any sinner. He is a more than an adequate Savior; He is a mighty Savior. It is necessary to appreciate the sufficiency of the righteousness that is imputed to our account. In Christ, we have fulfilled perfectly the requirements of God’s Holy Law. In Christ, the demands of a broken law (death) have been met. The failure to appreciate the greatness of our justification often results in low views of Christ and His power to save.

What is the result of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us? Before God we are declared righteous. The righteousness of Christ gives us the legal right to stand before God and to enter His presence. The justification of the Christian is complete and perfect. Because it is Christ’s righteousness, there is no need for additional merit. Negatively speaking we are declared not guilty and positively speaking we are declared righteous. See Romans 4:6-8.

People often call the doctrine of justification by faith a legal fiction. However, for the guilty person burdened with a sensitive conscience, it is the most glorious thought imaginable. In Romans 5:1-11, Paul describes the blessings that justification brings including peace with God, proven character in affliction, and true hope.

Some are convinced that the doctrine of justification by faith leads to an ungodly life. They reason that if a person realizes their sins are forgiven, they will have the license to live as they please. This is not a new objection to the doctrine of justification because Paul faced it in his own day. See Romans, chapter 6. If the grace of God abounded toward us when we were yet sinners, why should not we continue to live in sin so that grace might super abound? The Biblical answer to this objection is that justification is not the only blessing given to the person at the moment of salvation. Not only has the person been declared righteous, he has been united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. He has been translated out of the kingdom of unrighteousness into the kingdom of righteousness. He has been brought into this liberty of a new relationship with God through the new birth or regeneration. The person who has experienced the grace of both justification and regeneration has a new principle of life in his heart. He desires to do the will of God from the heart because he shares the resurrected life of Christ. This new life in Christ has two characteristics. First, it is a life that has victory over sin, and second, it is a life that is lived unto God. See Paul’s description of this new life in Christ as found in Romans 6:1-11.

Let us give some practical lessons that come from a biblical understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith.

First, Martin Luther stated that the correct teaching of the doctrine of justification by faith distinguishes between a standing or falling church. Where the doctrine is taught correctly, the church is in a healthy state. Where this doctrine is not taught or is misunderstood, the glorious truth of the Gospel is hidden. The Reformers were convinced that the Medieval Church did not teach the doctrine of justification correctly and, as a result, many people were in grave spiritual danger.

As a result, the Reformers were adamant in their resistance to any attack on this doctrine because it was an attack on the Gospel itself. They coined Latin phrases that safeguarded the Gospel and the doctrine of justification. They stressed that justification was by faith alone (sola fide) and it was in Christ alone (solus Christus). Having escaped the spiritual darkness that enveloped the Church, they fought to protect this doctrine with all their strength.

Second, because the doctrine of justification lies at the heart of the Gospel of grace, we should not be surprised if it is attacked. Many times it is not a direct denial or attack on the doctrine itself as much as it is neglected or not given the emphasis in the Christian faith that it merits. Even in the 21st century, this doctrine is being called into question. It is important that every Christian know this doctrine so that he might be able to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Third, a correct understanding of this precious doctrine leads to a stable Christian life and experience. There are many people who lack a biblically-based assurance of their salvation. An experiential knowledge of this teaching leads to a sure ground of hope that we are truly those who belong to our Lord Jesus Christ. May this be an incentive to a further study of this precious biblical truth.

In our next article, we will compare the doctrine of justification by faith with what is contained in the Evangelical and Catholics Together statement entitled The Gift of Salvation.