Justfication for Dummies

I was going to save this post for later, but two recent blog discussions have prompted me to offer it now.

On Pontifications, Al Kimel posted a review of Christopher Malloy’s recent Engrafted into Christ, itself a critique of the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This has started a pretty long and erudite thread (69 comments and counting) that included one reference to a recent paper by the Rt. Rev. C. Fitzsimmons Allison, the former Bishop of South Carolina. Whether prompted by this or independently, Kendall Harmon provided a link to this paper on titusonenine, where another thread is underway, again on the whole question of justification. On both threads I offered a very brief critique of Fitz Allison’s approach to the question, especially his treatment of the Greek term λογιζομαι, a word that in my view will not bear the weight that Bishop Allison places on it. To me, it sounds as though he believes that just saying it in Greek solves the problem of justification. It doesn’t.

In my experience, most people don’t get all that hepped up about justification, rightly or wrongly, and those who do get very, very worked up indeed. So if you are among those who, like me, need to have things reduced to simple terms—if you need a score card, so to speak, to keep things straight—then I offer once again the words of the Rev. B. J. Kidd, specifically his commentary on Article XI of the Thirty-nine Articles.

As I have noted before, Kidd’s commentary (at least, my edition of it) is a century old. That means it was written before Barth and neo-orthodoxy, before Hans Kung’s work on Barth and justification, before the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration, before the Anglican and Roman International Commission agreement ‘Salvation and the Church’, et cetera. However, as I have previously stated, this has a certain advantage—if you’re like me, i.e. not well read in this topic (I have yet to crack Alister McGrath’s work on this, for example, something frequently cited in these discussions), Kidd has a simplicity that is not obscured by a century of ecumenical efforts and squabbles. Hence my title for the post, ‘Justification for Dummies’, intended to evoke the well known series of ‘for Dummies’ books but which those with more knowledge in these matters can take as a double entendre if that makes them happy.

For the more sophisticated among my readers, let me offer the following questions for you to address (if you care to) in any comments you might post:

1: Is Kidd correct in his interpretation of the Article?
2: Is Kidd correct in his characterization of Trent?
3: Whether or not the answer to #2 is ‘yes’, are there those (whether Protestant or Catholic) who read Trent or understand the Catholic teaching on justification in the manner Kidd describes?
4: Is Kidd correct in his characterization of Luther?
5: Whether or not the answer to #4 is ‘yes’, are there those (whether Protestant or Catholic) who read Luther or understand the Lutheran teaching on justification in the manner Kidd describes?
6: Apart from any other considerations, is Kidd correct about Justification and Sanctification?

But keep it simple, please. Remember, this is for dummies.

Update: Ponticator has published a piece by Christopher Malloy that, to this simple reader, neatly summarizes the question from a Roman Catholic point of view. I commend it, whether the reader is inclined to agree with Malloy or not.


De Hominis Justifiatione.

(§ 2) Tantum propter meritum Domini ac Servatoris nostri Jesu Christi, per fidem, non propter opera et merita nostra, (§ 1) justi coram Deo reputamur. (§ 3) Quare sola fide nos justificari, doctrina est saluberrima, ac consolationis plenissima; ut in Homilia de Justificatione hominis fusius explicatur.

Of the Justification of Man.

(§ 1) We are accounted righteous before God, (§ 2) only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. (§ 3) Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

(i) Source. — The Article is an improved version of that on Justification in the series of 1553, prefixed in 1563 by the clause in heavy type, which is based upon the language of the Confession of Würtemberg.

(ii) Object. — It is directed against ideas of human merit, so long prevalent throughout the Western Church before the Reformation, and then shared by the Anabaptists. But while it so far sides with Luther on Justification, it carefully avoids the distinctively Lutheran phraseology : e.g. that a man is justified when he believes himself to be justified; or that his faith is the cause, rather than the condition, of his justification; or that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner for his justification. Further, it silently corrects the Council of Trent, which, in its session of January 13, 1547, had decreed that ‘justification is not merely the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man.’ (Sess. vi. c. 7) The Article follows S. Paul in distinguishing between Justification and Sanctification.

(iii) Explanation. — § 1, opening with the statement that We are accounted righteous, raises two questions.

There is (a) the linguistic question, What is the meaning of ‘justify’? The Article uses the phrases We are accounted righteous by faith and We are Justified by faith synonymously, thus clearly taking ‘justify’ to mean ‘make out righteous’ rather than ‘make righteous.’ In this it has the support of Scripture. The Greek word δικαιοω by analogy with other words of the same form (e.g. αξιοω=deem worthy) except such as are derived from adjectives having a physical meaning (e.g. τυφλος, ‘blind’, τυφλοω=to blind), means invariably to ‘account’ or ‘treat as righteous.’ In the New Testament it occurs but eleven times outside the epistles of S. Paul. Thus the divine ‘Wisdom is’ said to be ‘justified’ i.e. vindicated or proved righteous, ‘by her works’ (Matt. xi. 19 = Luke vii. 35): and the word is used in the forensic sense of acquittal as opposed to condemnation before a judge (Matt. xii. 37). In S. Paul’s epistles the word occurs twenty-seven times. In some cases it is unambiguous, and must mean ‘treat as righteous,’ i. e. ‘acquit’: in none can the meaning ‘make righteous’ be established for it. For, with S. Paul, as in the Gospels, the decisive passages are such as connect it with a verdict of acquittal in court, and speak of God as being pronounced righteous by the judgment of mankind (Rom. iii. 4); or of man as unable to ‘condemn’ His’ elect’ where He ‘justifieth’ (Rom. viii. 33); or of the Apostle himself as not being acquitted even by the verdict of his own conscience, clear as it is, but only by the last Judgment of all (1 Cor. iv. 4). Thus on linguistic grounds of New Testament interpretation, the Article would be in the wrong if it took ‘we are justified’ to mean anything else but ‘we are accounted righteous.’

But this raises (b) the theological question, What is the relation, in time, of Justification to Sanctification? Is a man accounted righteous (justified) before he is made righteous (sanctified)? Considerations of an a priori kind appear to require that he should be made righteous first, for otherwise there would seem to be an element of unreality, and therefore of immorality, in God’s dealings with mankind if He be represented as accounting the sinner righteous when as yet he is not really so. Such considerations, coupled with an imperfect knowledge of Greek, may have led Western theologians to take Justificare in the sense of ‘make righteous,’ and to hold that before God justifies a man He imparts to him an infused righteousness. Accordingly the Council of Trent made Justification to include Sanctification. But the facts of language do not permit of this, nor does New Testament usage. Further, in Rom. iv. 5 the person treated as righteous is assumed to be not actually righteous but ‘ungodly.’ We must therefore conclude

(α) that S. Paul regards Justification simply as the bestowal of forgiveness for the past, and so separates it in thought from God’s other gift of Sanctification or growth in grace afterwards. Both are connected with Baptism (1 Cor. vi. 11). But while Justification is no more than the initial act of the Christian life, when we are forgiven (cf. Rom. iii. 24, 25 with Eph. i. 7) and received into favour (Rom. v. 1, 2), Sanctification is its gradual perfecting (Rom. vi. 19, 22), and while the one represents the work of God the Son for us ‘who redeemed me and all mankind’ (Rom. iii. 2226; Gal. ii. 16, 17), the other is the work of God the Holy Ghost within us, who ‘sanctifieth me and all the elect people of God’ (1 Thess. iv. 3, 8; 2 Thess. ii. 13; cf. 1 Pet. i. 2);

(β) that thus Justification precedes Sanctification, and so God Justifies by anticipation, treating the sinner as the Prodigal Son was treated by his father (Luke xv. 20-22), not by reference to what he is at the moment when he is received into favour, but to what he gives promise of becoming through his faith; but yet

(γ) that Justification and Sanctification, distinguishable as they are in thought, are inseparable in actual life because of its organic unity. The former is the subject of Rom. i.-v., the latter of vi.-viii. ; but they are one whole. ‘Being now made free from sin’ -that is Justification-’ ye have your fruit unto Sanctification, and the end eternal life’ (Rom. vi. 22). These are the three stages in a Christian life, separable in thought, but continuous in reality—Justification, Sanctification, Salvation.

§ 2 proceeds to the ground of Justification. We are justified only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. The meritorious cause, as the technical phrase goes, of our justification, that on account of (propter) which we are justified, is not faith, which is only the condition (per) of it, but the merits of Christ. The contrast here, as in the New Testament, is not between faith and works, but between our merits and Christ’s (Rom. iv. 4, 5, 24, 25). The medieval system encouraged men to think that they could earn forgiveness, and so resulted in a religious practice which had a very close resemblance to that legalism which S. Paul combated (Rom. iii. 20, 28; Gal. ii. 16). As against such notions, the Article re-affirms his doctrine that forgiveness is a free gift which we owe not to our own merits but to the redemptive work of our Lord (Rom. iii. 24). But on this point there is no disagreement among Christians. The Council of Trent equally affirms that ’the meritorious cause of justification is our Lord Jesus Christ, who merited justification for us by His passion’; (Sess. v. c. 7) and divergences begin to arise not over such fundamental statements as that ‘we have our redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of God’s grace’ (Eph. i. 7; Tit. iii. 7), but upon the subsidiary point as to the office of faith in responding to it. ‘By grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory’ (Eph. ii. 8 ).

§ 3, to which all that precedes has been leading up, asserts that the office of faith is to be the condition of Justification on our part. We are justified by faith only.

(1) What then is meant by faith? In the New Testament it ranges over a wide field, and rises from mere belief or intellectual assent to a proposition, e.g. ‘that God is one; as when it is said that ‘the devils also believe’ this ‘and shudder’ (Jas. ii. 19), up to faith on (Acts xi. 17; Rom. iv. 5) or in (Acts x. 43; Gal. ii. 16; Phil. i. 29) a Person, Jesus Christ. This alone is justifying faith; for it is a faith like that of Abraham (Rom. iv. 21, 22) or of S. Peter (Matt. xvi. 16, sqq.), involving moral self-surrender to a Person, and reposing its confidence, not in a message about His atoning death, but in His own ever-present aid as the Risen Lord (Rom. iv. 24, 25; x. 9; 2 Cor. i. 9; iv. 13, 14; Col. ii. 12; 1 Pet. i. 21). The contrast to be observed is exactly that between the belief which Martha had, that there should be a resurrection, and the faith which our Lord required of her in Himself—‘I am the resurrection. . . . Believest thou this?’ ( John xi. 24-27). Justifying faith is a thing not of the head but of the heart (Rom. x. 9).

(2) But why faith only? The expression does not occur in the New Testament, except for condemnation (Jas. ii. 24). We will return to that point presently. But S. Paul does affirm that faith is the sole condition of justification on our part. ‘We reckon that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law’ (Rom. iii. 28). It is true that the faith which justifies, springing as it does from personal devotion to a Person, is a ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. v. 6). But as in the first of these passages it is not meant to exclude any other instrument on God’s part from the office of justifying, such as Baptism, which is ‘unto remission of sins’ (Acts ii. 38; Rom. vi. 6, 7), so in the second, all that is meant is to exclude works of charity from that office, not to exclude them altogether. Thus it is expressly ‘to him that worketh not but believeth on Him that justifieth’ that ‘his faith is reckoned for righteousness’ (Rom. iv. 5). Faith only is the condition of justification; and it is all-sufficient for the purpose because it carries with it, as a thing of the heart, the self-surrender of the whole man.

(3) It is this doctrine, then, that we are justified by faith only, which the Article describes as a most wholesome doctrine and very full of comfort. Words could not be better chosen. The condition of free forgiveness on our side is faith or whole-hearted self-surrender. Now the comfort of this is that, in being offered on such terms, acceptance with God is placed within the reach of all. Head and hands can do little; we can neither understand much of God nor earn His favour; but there is no man who has not a heart to place at His disposal. But given such a change of heart, God receives a guarantee for the future, whose value cannot be equalled; for ‘personal adhesion’ is ‘the highest and most effective motive-power of which human character is capable.’ (Sanday and Head1am, on Romans, p. 34.)

Here, then, in its promotion of moral effort (Rom. iii. 31), lies the wholesomeness of the doctrine; and it is only in its perverted forms, when faith is taken to mean something less than an entire self-surrender, that it ceases to be wholesome. Unwholesome perversions are such as were condemned by S. James and maintained by Luther.

(a) The relation of SS. Paul and James to each other is one of verbal contradiction, but substantial agreement. Both start from the case of Abraham (Gen. xv. 6.; Rom. iv. 3; Jas. ii. 23), a standing thesis for discussions in the Jewish schools (cf. 1 Macc. ii. 52), and come to exactly opposite conclusions, S. Paul that ‘To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness’ (Rom. iv. 9), S. James, that ‘by works a man is justified, and not only by faith’ (Jas. ii. 24). But

(α) they give different senses to ‘faith.’ With S. James, it is only assent to a proposition (Jas. ii. 19), an affair of the head; with S. Paul, an affair of the heart (Gal. v. 6; Rom. x. 10); and ‘faith’ in S. James corresponds to ‘knowledge’ (1 Cor. viii. 1) in S. Paul.
(β) they give different meanings to ‘works.’ The works that S. Paul condemns are ‘works of law’ (Rom. iii. 20; R. V. marg.); those which S. James requires are works of charity (Jas. ii. 15-17).
(γ) they attach different ideas to ‘justification,’ S. Paul using it of the initial act by which God, of His free grace, puts a soul into a right relation with Himself; St. James, of its final vindication before Him (Jas. ii. 14 and 24).
(δ) Each, moreover, had a different type of error to deal with. S. Paul writes, as a theologian, against theories of human merit; S. James, like a prophet, indignantly asks of a barren and unsympathetic orthodoxy, ‘Can that faith save?’ (Jas. ii. 14). It is probable that S. James, so far from being at variance with S. Paul, was employing carefully guarded language to correct a misuse by others of teaching peculiarly exposed to misrepresentation (cf. Rom. iii. 8; 2 Pet. iii. 16).

(b) Luther, who had to face a condition of practical error not unlike that which confronted S. Paul, understood him well; but, in his dread of admitting anything that savoured of human merit, he went too far. He rightly took justification to mean forgiveness or acquittal, and insisted that faith only is the condition upon which we receive it. But the reaction carried him beyond this point. He reduced faith to the level of mere belief. He made it that on account of (propter, δια with acc.) which, instead of that through (per, δια with gen.; cf. Gal. ii. 16) which, we are justified; or, in other words, treated it as the meritorious cause, rather than the condition, of our justification. He extended justification to cover more than the initial act by which God receives us into favour, and made it do duty for sanctification and salvation as well. Thus with Luther, ‘We are justified through faith only’ tended to mean ‘We are saved by mere belief’; and this accounts for both types of excess which dogged the heels of his reformation, though with neither had he any personal sympathy. His disparagement of the good works naturally accompanying a faith which worketh by love led to antinomianism. His ascription to faith of the office, not of justifying only, but of saving as well, is Solifidianism. This is an error which makes faith only (sola fides) the be-all and end-all of religion, and is responsible for that neglect of the Church and the Sacraments as means of grace which has been characteristic of Protestantism since Luther’s day.


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