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Question and Answer

Reformed Doctrine of Justification

Question:

The Reformers taught that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone. I believe this also. I also believe that we are declared righteous, not because of ourselves, but due to the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.

Roman Catholicism tells us that this teaching is foreign to the history of the church, that the Church never taught it and the early church fathers never taught it. Rome claims that we believe in a legal fiction.

Granted, the church could have been wrong all along, but is that likely? Since some doctrines took time to develop, can we say that the church never spoke about the imputed righteousness of Christ? I would like to investigate this. Can you help?

Answer:

Thank you for your question. Let me begin with answer 33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

This statement sets forth the doctrine of justification held by the Reformers, and accurately represents the Bible's presentation of the constituent elements of a believer's judicial standing before an all holy God.

Was the doctrine of justification stated this clearly prior to the reformation? Let me direct you to James Buchanan's magisterial volume, The Doctrine of Justification (1867; Banner of Truth, 1984), and, specifically to Lecture 3, "History of the Doctrine in the Times of the Fathers and Scholastic Divines":

The question, therefore is not, - Whether all the Fathers taught the doctrine of Justification in its original purity, nor even whether any one of the Fathers was entirely exempt from the corruptions which were gradually growing up in the Church; but simply, whether the doctrine of Justification by grace, through faith in the merits of Christ, may not be traced in the writings of some witnesses for the truth, along the whole line of the Church's history; and whether some true believers were not nourished and refreshed by it, even in the most degenerate times? We answer this question in the affirmative, by adducing testimonies from the Fathers of every succeeding age; and in doing so, we refer to them, not as authorities in matters of faith, but simply as witnesses to a matter of fact. (pages 78-79)

... there is no truth in the allegation that [the Protestant doctrine of Justification] had been unknown for fourteen hundred years before the Reformation. (page 80)

The magazine Modern Reformation has made Lecture 3 of Buchanan's excellent book available online here. In that lecture Buchanan supplies numerous and lengthy quotations from the early church fathers to support his assertion.

Buchanan wisely notes, "This doctrine was always held in substance by true believers; but it seems to have been reserved, for its fuller development, and more precise definition, till the great controversy which arose between the Romish and the Reformed Churches in the sixteenth century." (page 87) Just as controversies led to the carefully crafted Trinitarian formulations of Nicaea in the fourth century, and the Christological formulations of Chalcedon in the fifth century, so the controversies of the Reformation period led to the magnificent statements of our Reformed confessions on justification.

Is the Protestant doctrine of justification legal fiction? When I was a boy, I remember being taught by my Presbyterian Sunday School teachers a definition of justification that went like this: "God treats me as if I had never sinned." Such a definition is simply wrong, and opens the way to the charge of legal fiction.

God does not treat the believer as if he were righteous. He is in fact righteous by virtue of his union with Jesus Christ. God has made Christ "our righteousness" (1 Cor. 1:30), and in Christ we are "the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

John Murray makes this point well: "The righteousness of Christ is the righteousness of his perfect obedience, a righteousness undefiled and undefilable, a righteousness which not only warrants the justification of the ungodly but one that necessarily elicits and constrains such justification. God cannot but accept into his favor those who are invested with the righteousness of his own Son." [John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), page 124.]

No fiction here. In Christ the believer is truly righteous.


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