Saturday, February 10, 2007

Roundtable 5: On Justification

Article IV on Justification
Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God [coram Deo] by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake [propter Christum], through faith [per fidem], when they believe [so wir glauben; cum credunt] that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes [imputat; zurechnen] for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

This is the central and chief article (Hauptartikel) of the faith. Lutheran theology is concentric, centered on the objective, saving work of Christ in justifying the sinner in His death. Rightly this article is often described as the “article upon which the church stands or falls.” Without the hub, the wheel cannot turn properly. Our brother McCain pointed me to the following quote from Apology IV:

“But since in this controversy the chief topic of Christian doctrine is treated, which, understood aright, illumines and amplifies the honor of Christ [which is of especial service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, and alone shows the way to the unspeakable treasure and right knowledge of Christ, and alone opens the door to the entire Bible], and brings necessary and most abundant consolation to devout consciences, we ask His Imperial Majesty to hear us with forbearance in regard to matters of such importance.”

At issue is the justification of the sinner before God [coram Deo]. This is not about our justification before men [coram hominibus], which has to do with civic righteousness, but the righteousness that avails before a righteous God. The 4th article builds on what has been confessed before. Because man is utterly incapable of righteousness before God due to original sin (AC II), and because the Son of God, the incarnate Word, has offered His perfect life as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world (AC III), righteousness before God cannot be achieved by man but must be imputed externally by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. For this reason, justification before God must necessarily exclude any strength, merits, or works on man’s part.

“Faith” is not an active work, rather it is a passive trust in the completed work of Christ, namely that we are received into God’s favor and our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, whose death “made satisfaction” (satisfecit) for our sins.

This article rests on key passages from Romans which form the central theme of Paul’s doctrine, that the law cannot justify the sinner (Rom 3:20), that there is a righteousness apart from the law which comes through faith in Christ Jesus. “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom 3:28). Citing Abraham, St. Paul concludes: “But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom 4:23-25),

As Melanchthon notes in the Apology, the proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel, of our works and Christ’s work, are at the heart of this central teaching. Clearly the Law and our works must be rigorously excluded from the article of justification, lest the merits and sufferings of Christ be diminished. The concept of “imputation” ensures that the Christian’s righteousness before God remains Christ’s righteousness, something outside of ourselves (extra nos) to which faith objectively clings. This also governs the Lutheran understanding of the Christian being simul justus et peccator. In Christ through faith, the believer is totally justified; in himself he remains total sinner by virtue of original sin, which is not taken away but covered by forgiveness. The justification of the sinner before God in Christ is always whole and entire.

Articles IV, V, and VI together form a cohesive whole. Melanchthon treats them as a unit in Apology IV. (There is no Apology V or VI.) The article of justification and its reception through faith flows into a discussion of the ministry of the Word and Sacrament which provides the objective Gospel that creates faith and to which faith clings, which give rise to the good works of love that flow freely from faith.


William Weedon said...

You know, I love Chemnitz' treatment of this topic, and I think it helps illuminate WHY it was so central to the Reformers and why they could and did regard it as central to the Church's teaching:

"For this is the chief question, this is the issue, the point of controversy, the krinomenon: namely, what that is on account of which God receives sinful man into grace; what must and can be set over against the judgment of God, that we may not be condemned according to the strict sentence of the Law; what faith must apprehend and bring forward, on what it must rely, when it wants to deal with God, that it may receive remission of sins; what intervenes, on account of which God is rendered appeased and propitious to a sinner who has merited wrath and eternal damnation; what the conscience should set up as the thing on account of which the adoption may be bestowed on us, on what confidence can be safely reposed and we shall be accepted to eternal life, etc; whether it is the satisfaction, obedience and merit of the Son of God, the Mediator, or, indeed, the renewal that has been begun in us, the love, and other virtues in us. Here is the point at issue in the controversy, which is so studiously and deceitfully concealed in the Tridentine decrees." (I:468)

wcwirla said...

My turn to pose a question.

Off and on, I've been troubled by the phrase "when we/they believe" (so wir glauben, cum credunt). This could be read in a transactional way that makes faith the trigger for justification. If so, what happens to "objective justification"? Are we vulnerable to "fideism" in putting it this way?

One way to handle this would be to say that Article III has laid the foundation of objective justification with Christ being the sacrifice for all sins of men. Article IV then deals with "subjective justification," that is, justification applied to the individual through faith.

Am I missing something here?

William Weedon said...


Yes, I suspect we've all been slightly ill at ease with that. We've been warned off of fideism, perhaps too much!

I have always taken Article IV primarily as referring to subjective justification. Said the way I say it to my Catechumens, on the Cross our Lord takes our "zero" for keeping the commandments and the consequences thereof; in our Baptism our Lord gives us His "perfect 10" score and tells us it is our own and to hold tight to it. I think, properly speaking, AC IV is about the second half of the justification story - about how the individual appropriates the righteousness of Christ through faith. Definitely AC III covers the basis of "objective justification."

By the way, instead of employing this whole way of speaking, I've been intrigued for years by Lossky's approach. Did I bring this up here before? Can't remember. Pardon if being redundant.

Christ saves human nature (objective justification) and the Holy Spirit saves human persons (subjective justification).


Paul T. McCain said...

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was hailed by some as a great "breakthrough" between Rome and Wittenberg on this doctrine. The LCMS FAQ page has a well done short summary of why this is not so.

Q. I would like to understand the main problem your church body has with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (signed October 31 by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church). Is it the fact that it implies that we are saved as a result of both faith and works?

A. Yes, you are on the right track here. The recently signed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) does not signal a change in the Roman Catholic church, but rather, a willingness on the part of the Lutherans who signed it to allow Rome's doctrine of justification to stand as a valid interpretation of what the Bible teaches us about justification. This is something that the Lutheran church has never done before, and in fact, it is a great tragedy and a profoundly sad moment in the history of Lutheranism.

Rome historically has always taught that we are saved by grace, and grace alone. They emphasize that very strongly. The 16th century Council of Trent makes this point very clear. Thus, there is nothing new on this in the Declaration on this point, even though some Lutherans have made it sound as if Rome's words about grace signal some marvelous breakthrough.

What you probably have not heard is that the JDDJ very carefully avoid precise definitions of the words grace, faith, sin, etc. That is no accident. Careful definition of those terms would have shown how far apart our two churches actually are on the doctrine of justification.

The problem with Rome's view of justification is that they view it as a process, whereby we cooperate with God's grace in order to merit eternal life for ourselves, and even for others (that is a paraphrase of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches). They view grace as a sort of "substance" that God infuses into us that permits us to do those works that are necessary in order that we might earn more grace. The Bible describes grace as the loving and favorable disposition of God; in other words, grace is all about what God is doing and giving.

We distinguish between the result of justification, which is the Christian life, and the work of God to save us. Rome mixes sanctification with justification. Why is this view troublesome? Because it teaches that something other than trust in Christ is necessary for or salvation. That "something other" is what we bring to the table. And the only thing we do bring to the table is our sin, not our good works. Our works are a response that God works in us, but not a contributing cause to our justification.

The Roman Catholic Church is very careful to state that even this "something other" is made possibly only because God has given us the "initial" grace to desire more grace. But in practical reality, it is apparent that the Roman Catholic Church is finally throwing people back on relying on what they are doing, or can do, to merit eternal life. When we mix in our works in the picture of our salvation, the glory and merit of Christ always end up becoming obscured.

But the Bible is clear that it is purely by grace, not by works, or else grace would just be a "help" for us to do the works that finally are what merit God's forgiveness. In the Roman Catholic view, justification is a process by which we participate with God in achieving our salvation. The Biblical view is that justification is God's declaration of our complete righteousness and total forgiveness, apart from any works. This gift is received by faith alone--apart from works (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8-9).

Another point to be made is this: If, in fact, Rome does teach justification as the Bible teaches it, then there should be an immediate change in its view of indulgences, prayer to the saints and the myriad of other extra-biblical traditions that it has embraced. For if justification is the heart and center of the Bible, then these other things are incompatible with it.

I hope this helps you see that the Roman Catholic view of justification and the classical Lutheran view are definitely not complementary, but diametrically opposed to one another. The JDDJ did not change that fact. The Lutherans who signed the document did not insist on careful definition of terms so as to make absolutely clear that our salvation is by faith alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone.

The best short study of the historic differences between Rome and Lutheranism on the doctrine of justification is available in a book called "Justification and Rome" by Robert Preus. You may purchase a copy of this book from Concordia Publishing House (CPH) (800-325-3040).

The most complete treatment of this subject is in the 16th century Lutheran response to Trent, which still stands today as the best and most complete treatment of Trent by a Lutheran. It is "The Examination of the Council of Trent" by Martin Chemnitz, also available through CPH.

Paul T. McCain said...

The best response, to date, that I'm aware of to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification from a confessional Lutheran perspective was the one issued several years ago by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod which sent out a joint-analysis prepared by the two theological faculties of The LCMS. The Commission published this statement and sent it out with a study guide for use in Lutheran congregations.

It is available for download from .

Charles Martin said...

“Cheap Grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.” This is the opening sentence from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945.

He expands on his theory “Cheap Grace” on page 47, “ Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The points he puts forth in his book and the concerns stated in this article seem to me to walk hand in hand.

The book isn’t that expensive and will open the laymen’s eyes to a growing problem and a great threat within Christendom. I would recommend buying it as you will want to mark the passages and read it more than once.

Paul T. McCain said...

Bill, and Bill:

The objective/subjective justification issue is beautifully explained by Luther in the Large Catechism, as he explains Article III of the Creed. I just read it this morning as I was paying, of course, very close attention to the Bible Class.

Paul T. McCain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Weedon said...

I think that an impartial read of the JDDJ shows that it is actually a tad more cautious than the press-releases that hyped it. I think there was some convergence, but convergence is not the same thing as agreement.

What I wish the Lutherans would give full credit to on the topic is Apology IV.72

"'To be justified' means that just people are made out of unjust men, or born again. It also means that they are pronounced, or counted, as just. For Scripture speaks both ways."

The key to this passage, it seems to me, which also haunts the Concordists in the Formula is that God's Word CREATES the reality it DECLARES. So we can speak truly of "being made righteous" as "being justified" because God's declaration accomplishes exactly what it says.

That's why speaking of "merely" forensic has always seemed to me to be utter hogwash! God's Word DOES things. It's not like me telling David "Take out the trash." That may or may not happen! But when God declares us righteous, then His declaration CAUSES what He says to be.

Franzmann nailed that puppy:

"Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous,
Bright with thine own holiness."

Fr. Timothy May said...

Regarding "Justification" has anyone heard of it being described as an "event" that takes place and which is followed by sanctification? I had not heard this word used in terms of describing justification before until recently. It almost seems like an existential moment occurs and then we are able to be about the work of sanctification. Thoughts?

wcwirla said...

Well said, brother William. I happened to have the Apology open to the very same page. A few paragraphs before we get this: "But we are talking about a faith that is not an idle thought, but frees us from death, brings forth a new life in our hearts, and is a work of the Holy Spirit." (Ap IV.64)

Those who diminish forensic justification with a "mere" are actually diminishing the creative power of the Word to do that which it says. I notice in that Franzmann hymn how he begins with the creative Word - "at Thy speaking it was done." That same understanding comes into justification wherein we are righteous before God at His speaking, and that speaking actually does what it says.

Chris Rosebrough said...

Dispatch from the Other Side of the Wall

What happens when this article is not the central doctrine? Our confessions and our brightest theologians warn us repeatedly that if this doctrine falls then all others fall with it.

Chemnitz wrote, “This article is in a sense a stronghold and the high fortress of all doctrine and of the entire Christian religion; if it is obscured or adulterated or set aside, the purity of doctrine in other articles of faith CANNOT POSSIBLY BE MAINTAINED (emphasis mine).

American Evangelicalism is mired in anthropocentric idolatry precisely because this doctrine is not at the center.

False religion and idolatry in all of its forms attributes merits to man and his religious efforts at pleasing/appeasing a divine being. Like boy scouts and girl scouts, followers of false religion earn merit badges and display them for all the world to see. The supreme focus of their efforts isn’t the deity they seek to please, it is themselves. “I PRAYED and God blessed ME.” “I WAS OBEDIENT and I OVERCAME that particular sin and God gave ME happiness, financial freedom, a sexy spouse, a healthy body, a new car and a promotion at work.” “I ACCEPTED Jesus as my savior and now I am saved.”

In anthropocentric religion there is no room for a crucified savior who does it all for you. In false religion Jesus Christ serves as a coach, example or rewarder of good works. The reason for this simple. It is the athlete who receives the gold medal, the adulation of the media and thereby all the glory.

How do we combat false religion and defend this doctrine? Chemnitz answers that question also. Said Chemnitz, “But if this article is kept pure, all idolatry, superstitions, and whatever corruption's there are in the other articles of faith tumble down from their own weight.”

I think this is what the apostle Paul was referring to when he said, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ...” (2 Cor 10:4-5).

This chief and central article of Christian faith is best defended when it is being used in the trenches as an offensive weapon.

wcwirla said...

Apology IV is quite long and detailed. It is a brilliant exposition in its own right. As long as we are citing our favorite Apology IV quotes, let me toss mine into the ring:

"It is easy to determine the difference between this faith and the righteousness of the law. Faith is that worship which receives God's offered blessings; the righteousness of the law is that worship which offers God our own merits. It is by faith that God wants to be worshiped, namely, that we receive from him what he promises and offers." (Ap IV.49)

It seems to me that whenever Law/Gospel are muddled, everything else gets muddled as well: faith/works, justification/sanctification, etc. and some form of synergism creeps into the article of justification. Even the understanding of worship gets distorted.

Paul T. McCain said...

I can't cite it specifically, but the Ap quote that stuck in my brain when I read it for the first time is:

"Justification is not the approval of a particular act, but of the entire person."

Pastor Daniel Skillman said...

I found this at
I thought it would be informative for people to read some solid Lutheran responses to it.
We’ve mentioned that we need sanctifying grace in our souls if we’re to be equipped for heaven. Another way of saying this is that we need to be justified. "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11).

The Protestant misunderstanding of justification lies in its claim that justification is merely a forensic (i.e., purely declaratory) legal declaration by God that the sinner is now "justified." If you "accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior," he declares you justified, though he doesn’t really make you justified or sanctified; your soul is in the same state as it was before; but you’re eligible for heaven.

A person is expected thereafter to undergo sanctification (don’t make the mistake of thinking Protestants say sanctification is unimportant), but the degree of sanctification achieved is, ultimately, immaterial to the question of whether you’ll get to heaven. You will, since you’re justified; and justification as a purely legal declaration is what counts. Unfortunately, this scheme is a legal fiction. It amounts to God telling an untruth by saying the sinner has been justified, while all along he knows that the sinner is not really justified, but is only covered under the "cloak" of Christ’s righteousness. But, what God declares, he does. "[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Is. 55:11). So, when God declares you justified, he makes you justified. Any justification that is not woven together with sanctification is no justification at all.

The Bible’s teaching on justification is much more nuanced. Paul indicates that there is a real transformation which occurs in justification, that it is not just a change in legal status. This is seen, for example, in Romans 6:7, which every standard translation—Protestant ones included—renders as "For he who has died is freed from sin" (or a close variant).

Paul is obviously speaking about being freed from sin in an experiential sense, for this is the passage where he is at pains to stress the fact that we have made a decisive break with sin that must be reflected in our behavior: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Rom. 6:1-2). "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness" (6:12-13).

The context here is what Protestants call sanctification, the process of being made holy. Sanctification is the sense in which we are said to be "freed from sin" in this passage. Yet in the Greek text, what is actually said is "he who has died has been justified from sin." The term in Greek (dikaioo) is the word for being justified, yet the context indicates sanctification, which is why every standard translation renders the word "freed" rather than "justified." This shows that, in Paul’s mind, justification involves a real transformation, a real, experiential freeing from sin, not just a change of legal status. And it shows that, the way he uses terms, there is not the rigid wall between justification and sanctification that Protestants imagine.

According to Scripture, sanctification and justification aren’t just one-time events, but are ongoing processes in the life of the believer. Both can be spoken of as past-time events, as Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 6:11: "But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God." Sanctification is also a present, ongoing process, as the author of Hebrews notes: "For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). In regard to justification also being an on-going process, compare Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6 with both Hebrews 11:8; Genesis 12:1-4 and James 2:21-23; Genesis 22:1-18. In these passages, Abraham's justification is advanced on three separate occasions.

Paul T. McCain said...

The point that the author of the Roman Catholic comment you found passes over very quickly is the *key* to our difference with Rome: the reason God justifies us. We are not justified because of anything in us, but this is entirely by grace, not by works.

Justification is both God's declaration and an ongoing reality. The author pits the two against each other.

God said, "Let there be light" and there was light, but the light continues to this day through the means God established to provide it. Similarly, God justified us and continues to do so through the means provided for this to happen.

The author also is mistaken in assuming that justification can not be both a declaration and something that actually results in a change in us. The Lutheran Confessions do speak of a change in us as a result of justification, but this is a fruit of justification, not a cause.

wcwirla said...

"I found this at
I thought it would be informative for people to read some solid Lutheran responses to it."

OK, I’ll take a stab at it, though it’s not easy to rebut a straw man. I'm leaving out the original quote, though I'm following its contours.

The quote illustrates nicely the utter confusion of justification and sanctification that is characteristic of Roman Catholicism. Sanctification is “another way of saying” justification. Wrong. Justification leads to sanctification, sanctification is the outcome of justification. I’m reminded of a Korbyism. Kenneth Korby once commented: “People are anxious over the necessity of good works for salvation; God is anxious over the necessity of salvation for good works.”

Notice the past tenses (aorist in the Greek) of the verbs in 1 Cor. 6:11. These are all fully accomplished for us in Christ.

The “merely” betrays the error of the argument. The divine act of declaring a sinner righteous is no “merely.” The forensic act of declaring the sinner to be righteous also makes the sinner righteous. The Word does what it says. “And ‘to be justified’ means to make unrighteous men righteous or to regenerate them, as well as to be pronounced or accounted righteous. For Scripture speaks both ways” (Ap IV.72)

Again, the term“legal fiction” betrays the problem. It goes with the “merely.” This “legal fiction” is a actual fact. In declaring the unjust just, God is telling the greater truth of the sinner as he is in Christ. To deny that our righteousness before God is the righteousness of Christ (“only covered under the ‘cloak’”) flies in the face of Scripture which declares that we are covered with a righteousness not our own (Gal 3:27, 2 Cor 5:21).

We have no quarrel with the notion that justification and sanctification are always woven together, so long as you keep the threads distinct.

I would agree that the Bible’s teaching on justification is “nuanced,” but not in the direction of confusing it with sanctification. I’m not sure what point is being made about Romans 6. The passage makes perfectly good sense translated as it is in the Greek: “For he who has died is justified from sin.” And the protestant problem is what? To be justified is to be freed from sin, that is, free from the Law which drives sin (Romans 7).

Actually, Romans 6 demonstrates that justification leads to real transformation. We are baptized into Christ’s death in order to live in newness of life. The one who has died to sin is now freed from the Law to live in the Law and actually do what the Law demands, at least to some extent. The paradox is that the Law demands freedom from the Law in order to do the Law.

We agree that both justification and sanctification are indivorcible and ongoing. “Christ does not stop being our mediator after our renewal.” (Ap IV.162) Where we disagree is the notion that our justification (in the narrow sense) is an ongoing process. Justification is all or nothing, whole and entire. One is either justified before God or He isn’t. Sanctification, as it takes place in ourselves, is an ongoing process of daily dying and rising by which we become what we already are in Christ, or you might say, we catch up to our justification.

On the whole, the statement consistently confuses justification and sanctification under the guise of keeping them “woven” together, and so allows for works done in sanctification to bleed into justification, thereby robbing Christ of His glory and saving merit. It denies that the forensically justifying Word is an effective Word that does what it says. It illustrates how not much has changed in all these centuries, even though we’ve figured out nicer ways of saying it.

We are reminded that the church is ever in need of reformation when it comes to this article on which the church stands or falls.

William Weedon said...

Bill C.,

I also wonder how on earth they understand Titus 3? "HAVING BEEN JUSTIFIED by his grace, we might BECOME heirs, having the hope of eternal life."

How do they understand the Fathers who clearly taught justification as past act too? I'm thinking of Chrysostom especially in this neglected work:

"God does not wait for time to elapse after repentance. You state your sin, you are justified. You repented, you have been shown mercy." – Homily 7 On Repentance and Compunction, p. 95 in FOTC, vol. 96.

If that's not what the Reformation was all about, well, I'll eat a piece of bread (hey, I'm an Atkins nut)