By Dr. Herbert Samworth

The Doctrine of Justification was discussed thoroughly at the time of the Reformation and became the doctrine of a standing or falling Church. One might have thought that this would have settled discussion regarding its meaning and importance. However, such has not been the case. The Roman Catholic Church, in its definitive statements at the Council of Trent, has officially condemned the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. In its place, Rome has taught an infused righteousness given at baptism and one that is progressively worked out until perfect righteousness is attained.

If the Protestant doctrine of justification was opposed at the Reformation, we should not be surprised that it has continually been attacked. While we will not review all the disputes relating to this doctrine, we will call the reader’s attention to three attacks that are being made at the present time. These should not be considered exhaustive, but indicative of the place where the battle is being waged.

Church history warns us that the Church can never be indifferent to opposition. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and this applies to the spiritual realm as well.


In 1994 a document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together was released with a great amount of publicity. Without question this was a very controversial publication. Theologians attempted to craft a document that would permit both Evangelicals and Catholics to work together on common concerns. The underlying philosophy was that Evangelicals and Catholics have more in common than they do with Liberal theology. Both parties agree on many biblical doctrines including the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the need of man for salvation, etc.

The thesis of Evangelicals and Catholics Together was that Catholics and Evangelicals should stop their polemical warfare and join forces to resist an enemy that was making great inroads in modern life. Prominent in this attempt were the Evangelicals Charles Colson and James I. Packer. Catholics included Richard Neihous, the editor of First Things.

Without going into detail concerning the entire document, several controversial statements were made. First, there was the tacit agreement that both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals were brothers in the Lord, i.e. they shared a common salvation. There was also the statement that attempts to proselytize from one group to another should cease.

The most controversial statement, however, dealt with salvation, especially the doctrine of justification. The document stated that both Catholics and Evangelicals were justified by grace. It is true that both sides would agree that one is justified by grace as the ground or basis of salvation. However, Evangelicals and Catholics Together failed to distinguish between the differences regarding the instrumental means of justification. Evangelicals believe the instrumental means of justification is faith; we are justified by faith. When a person trusts in Christ, His righteousness is imputed, or put to the account, of the person. Justification is thus, in the Evangelical understanding, a change of legal status from condemnation to one of being declared righteous. The person now enjoys a new legal standing before God, having been declared righteous on account of Christ’s righteousness imputed to their account. In summary, the person is justified by faith alone in Christ alone.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches the instrumental cause of justification is baptism, one of the seven sacraments. Baptism regenerates the person, removes original sin, and infuses the righteousness of Christ. The individual cooperates with this infused grace and, as a result, becomes progressively holier. When the person reaches the standard that God requires, then they are justified. In this view, the righteousness that justifies a person is a combination of Christ’s righteousness infused in the person and the individual’s own righteousness that results from cooperating with the grace of God.

Several things stand out regarding the justification taught by the Roman Catholic Church. First, it is a change of one’s moral nature. Second, justification is progressive. Third, one can never be assured that he has done enough for God to accept him. Evangelicals are convinced that the Roman Catholic Church has confused the doctrine of sanctification, or making one holy, with the doctrine of justification, or declaring one holy.

As of the writing of this article, debate continues over this very important issue. Several clarifying statements have been issued but the real crux of the disagreement has never been addressed. The question is whether it is possible to reconcile an imputed (legal) righteousness and an infused (moral) righteousness. Both parties agree that the person is in need of the righteousness of Christ. However, disagreement remains as to the means by which the sinner receives it. The questions resolves itself into this: is a person justified by faith alone as taught by the Reformers or is a person justified by baptism as taught by the Roman Catholic Church?

This issue has not been confined to Evangelicals and Catholics Together; it has also been addressed in dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran Churches. There has been a desire to reunite the two Churches. Many, on both sides, have concluded that the Reformation was a tragedy and have sought to bring the two back into organic union. In 1997 A Final Proposal was issued in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is interesting to read the following statement taken from the Preamble, Statement 5:

The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations. [1]

Following the Preamble is an explanation of various aspects of the doctrine of justification. Especially interesting is Section 4.3 entitled Justification by Faith and through Grace. The Lutheran explanation of justification is given in the following words: According to Lutheran understanding, God justifies sinners in faith alone (sola fide). [2] The Catholic position is defined as follows: Persons are justified through Baptism as hearers of the Word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace… [3]

The above statements only reinforce the conclusion that the failure to distinguish between the instrumental means and between an imputed or infused righteousness allows both parties to agree. However, the agreement is superficial only and also fails to make clear that the righteousness that justifies is Christ’s righteousness alone. For that reason, Martin Luther laid great stress on what he called an alien righteousness that originated from outside the person; it was the righteousness of Christ that was imputed to us. The Roman Catholic Church insisted that the righteousness that justifies is partly the righteousness of Christ and partly the righteousness of the individual. Despite all the claims to the contrary the Joint Declaration has not dealt adequately with that difference. It simply is impossible to reconcile the differences between an imputed and infused righteousness. Until both parties agree to one or the other they cannot be in agreement.

Luther based the entire work of the Reformation on the reality of an imputed righteousness. It was the righteousness of Christ that justified him before God. It was an alien righteousness because Luther contributed nothing to it. This is the teaching of the Word of God as Paul expresses it in Romans 3:22, “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.” For that reason, the Reformers were adamant in stressing that instrumental means of justification was faith alone (sola fide).


This second attack is more of a distortion than a frontal attack on the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. It is also significant that it comes from within Evangelical circles from a theologian who has made significant contributions to the understanding of the Word of God. The person is N. T. Wright who has been nominated to the position of Bishop of Durham, England.

As background to this dispute, it is important to note that there have been differing views of the Apostle Paul and his contribution to the understanding of the Gospel. There are some who believe that Paul distorted the simple message of the Good News as announced by the Lord Himself. Basically this was the position maintained by Liberals of the early 20th century such as Albert Schweitzer. However, there were others who maintained that Paul was the great teacher of the Church who had been given the privilege of explaining the Gospel by means of his letters. However, both the defenders and critics of Paul saw him as being consistent with himself and the difference was over a correct or wrong view of Christ and His work.

However, this began to be questioned in recent years. Now the debate rages over Paul himself. Critics are now stating that the church has misunderstood Paul. Before they stated that Paul misunderstood the Lord. How has the church misunderstood Paul? It is by interpreting Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as a conversion narrative. The older view stated that Paul was a rabid Jew who sought to destroy the church so he persecuted the Christians. However, on his trip to Damascus, the Lord Himself met him on the way and revealed Himself to him. As a result, Paul was converted from a lost person, although very religious, to one who had been saved by Jesus. Paul was not only converted, he was commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul declared that he received his apostleship and his message by revelation from Jesus Christ Himself.

Now we are told that this interpretation of Paul is wrong. Paul was not unconverted, but merely a misguided, Jew. According to this view of Paul, Paul was already a converted man when he traveled to Damascus. He was indeed a member of the covenant community of Jews and had already been accepted by God. In other words, he was already in a right relationship with God and did not need to be justified. However, Paul did not see any place in the covenant community for the Gentiles, he was in total opposition to their inclusion. The revelation that Paul received from Jesus on the Damascus road was not one of salvation but that the new covenant community of God’s people included the Gentiles as well. For a pious Jew, this was a startling revelation. Paul’s commission, as received from the Lord Jesus, was not to announce the Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ but to proclaim the good news that the Gentiles were not full members of God’s covenant community.

As a result, the teaching regarding salvation or justification is reduced to an announcement of acceptance into God’s covenant community. According to this view, there is nothing in the Gospel that speaks of sin, alienation, spiritual guilt and condemnation, imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and a new legal relationship before God. However, there is much regarding acceptance and welcome into the new community of God’s people.

These views are still in the process of being formulated and one need be hesitant to predict where they may lead. However, one thing is certain. If this teaching is the true view of Paul and what constitutes justification, Luther certainly knew nothing about it. However, Luther did know the guilt of sin, and his inability to find forgiveness on the basis of his own works. Luther never knew what peace of heart and acceptance by God was until he placed his faith in Christ as the One who paid the penalty for his sins. What we have in this theology is a repudiation of the doctrine of justification by faith and the great advance in how the grace of God is conveyed to the human soul. There is a great amount of difference between a Gospel that announces forgiveness of sins and one that announces that a person is now a member of God’s covenant community.


At first this may appear to be an unfair accusation. There is a great amount of infighting among Christians already. Why should we create more? Without doubt, this is a true statement and there is the need to be careful in expressing concerns lest more damage than good is done.

However, there are some well-attested facts that warrant our attention. These are not accusations against any persons but an attempt to rouse Christians from their indifference.

There is little doubt there has been a reduction of doctrinal understanding over the past fifty years. Whatever the Evangelical movement has gained in making the Christian religion broader, it has lost by reducing its doctrinal underpinnings.

The statement is often made that doctrine divides. If there is division is over the minutia of the Christian life, then the statement is true and controversy is to be avoided. However, doctrine has the function of defining and stating the differences between what is biblical and what is not. Doctrine is nothing more than putting in a rational and systematic manner what the Word of God teaches on various subjects.

For example, the Bible does speak of the one true God and there are three Persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of God simply explains what the Bible teaches about this subject. The Doctrine of God is a subject worthy of our study if we hope to know and serve the true God.

The Bible speaks much about the doctrine of salvation. At the heart of the Biblical teaching about salvation is the doctrine of justification by faith. However, even among those who claim to be Christians, there appears to be little interest in knowing how a righteous God can accept an unrighteous person. How is it possible for sinful man to be in a right relationship with the God Who is both holy and righteous? The doctrine of justification by faith is the Biblical answer to that question. However, there are many who are not interested in studying the doctrine but are content with the mere belief they are saved without any interest in understanding how this took place.

This disinterest, or even neglect, of doctrinal Christianity has been taking place for a number of years and the Evangelical churches are paying a great price. There are several results from this:

First, there is a great lack of mature Christians in the church. Maturity is not achieved instantaneously, there is the need of a long term process to achieve it. We are thankful for practical methods that will help us attain this objective, but methods can never be a substitute for the teaching of God’s Word itself. Character traits such as commitment, faithfulness, long-range thinking, discipline, etc. may not be attractive to one who desires to achieve results instantaneously, but it is the Biblical method of growth.

Second, it is reflected in the level of Christian living that is displayed to the world. Studies made by recognized authorities have concluded that there is no discernable difference between the life styles of professing Christians and those who make no such claim. The only difference is that the first group claims to have a personal relationship with God and believe that they will go to heaven when they die. It is crushing to read that many of the individuals involved with the recent financial scandals are professing Christians. The disconnection between profession and practice is a great stumbling block to many. Unless Christians have a higher standard of ethical behavior than the world, we should not be surprised when many do not listen to what we say.

Third, and in some ways this is the most tragic of all, the lack of maturity prevents a believer from enjoying the greatest benefits of the Christian life. A parent is loathe to give valuable things to an immature child. The reason for this is simple. The immature child lacks the capacity to appreciate and enjoy the gift. How much do we miss of enjoying God by our unwillingness to progress in the Christian life? There have been those who have experienced the reality of this life here on earth and have left a record of their experiences of fellowship with God. How much we could learn from them of delighting in God, of communion with God, and of fellowship with the living God?

What are some of the practical effects that come from a true understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith? Let us look at some.

First, we live in a world where people search desperately for acceptance and a sense of self-worth. The doctrine of justification assures me that God accepts me in the person of His Son. What value did God place on me? He sent His Son to earth to die the death that I deserved to die.

Second, what is it worth to have a good conscience? When I reflect on my failures, sins, and mistakes, how easy it is to be discouraged. But the understanding of the doctrine of justification assures me of the forgiveness of my sins by the Lord Jesus Christ. It is possible to have a good conscience. There is a wonderful illustration given of the value of a good conscience in the Pilgrim’s Progress. The time had arrived when Old Honest had to cross the Jordan River. In other words, he had come to the time of his death. This was a very solemn time. However, Old Honest had arranged previously for Good Conscience to meet him there. The doctrine of justification by faith assures me that I may have a good conscience when I face the ultimate crisis of my life.

Third, the doctrine of justification by faith assures me that we have good news to share with people. Although people often deny they are worthy of condemnation, in their hearts they know it is true. Frequently they react in the opposite direction. They are convinced they are too bad to be saved. But a person is not saved by his own righteousness but by the righteousness of another person. That Person is Christ Himself and His righteousness is more than adequate to meet whatever claims the law of God may make. We have wonderful news to proclaim to the world!

Let us not allow the precious truths found in the doctrine of justification by faith slip away from us through neglect. We do not study doctrine to have a high view of ourselves. The study of the doctrine of justification by faith should make us thankful that we have been saved. This doctrine will humble us that we may serve one another.

1. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, Preamble, #5.
2. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 4.3 Justification by Faith and through Grace.
3. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 4.3 Justification by Faith and through Grace.