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Justification: the article by which the church stands or falls - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on Justification by Faith Alone

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

How should we think about justification? Iustificatio – articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (Justification: the article by which the church stands or falls).

The doctrine of justification is often misunderstood. It is the precise scholar who has attempted time and time again to set the Christian church aright on such a vital and necessary doctrine of the orthodox Christian faith. We need more scholars today to continue to remind us about the essentials of the Christian faith. There have been many intellectual giants blessed of God through the history of the church to turn the Christian away from the error of the heretics. They have done this by waling them painstakingly back to the light of Scripture and the blessed doctrine of justification which has been the target of Satanic attack since the salvation of God has been given among men. It is the ignorant Christian who misunderstands the cornerstone of his salvation and throws himself into the bondage of a works-righteousness over and over because he is not precise on his doctrine of justification. He could not, if asked, articulate it with rational and biblical answer. You say “amen.” Do you say this rightly? Oh yes, there are many “reformed” Christians who claim the banner of reformed thought, the doctrines of the reformers themselves, and the puritans, who also have a skewed understanding of such an important truth. Justification by faith alone, they shout, but then they misapply or reinvent the doctrine in some off-center manner. This is especially true of “imprecise” pastors in the pulpit. They preach a free grace salvation only to bind the Christian and confuse them on a doctrine which must be met with the utmost precision. And it is glaringly true to say that precision has all been but lost today.

The litmus test to evaluate whether a person truly understands the doctrine is to first ask a simple question: Does the doctrine of justification have any thing to do with what men experience in any manner? If the answer to this in your own mind lies in the realm of “yes,” then you are among those who have misunderstood the doctrine. If you say men must be justified by faith, and think it is through faith, then you have made a simple mistake which may cost you the comfort of full assurance. The precision is gone and terms are befuddled. The doctrine of justification is something independent from anything men can do, desire to do, or have done; and it is something which is not experienced. It is something God alone accomplished in a single declaration, and it stands apart from the one justified. Those for whom justification is granted are those who have not worked for it, or done anything to deserve it. Otherwise, the biblical idea of justification is lost.

I am not ashamed to say that the Roman Catholic Church has butchered the doctrine of justification. Some Catholic theologians have attempted to rescue the Roman church from such butchery, but have failed miserably, or have been silenced, or even commanded to recant lest they be excommunicated. It is not that I wish to dig up the bones of the Reformation on this subject, and bestow a brief history of the debate between Luther and the Roman Church; however, I do wish to use the Catholic idea of justification in contrast to the biblical position in order to be exceedingly clear on the matter. I believe the Roman Church has made the most comprehensive attack against justification, and thus, their Cannons are the best to illustrate what Christians ought not to believe. Thus, the biblical doctrine of justification will be much clearer and the light of it will shine brighter for clarity’s sake in juxtaposition to their ideas.

First, allow me to succinctly state the Roman position. The Council of Trent is still the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church no matter what Roman Catholic theologians or priests may say today. (If Roman Catholic theologians, scholars and priests wish to debate this point, they can take it up with the papacy. As it stands, no matter how deviant they have become in their doctrine (or more orthodox), the Roman Catholic Church still holds to Council of Trent as the final authority on matters of faith and practice for their church. If they wish to deviate from their own doctrine they may do so, but they cannot escape the fact that the Catholic Church has never, ever, recanted of their position in Trent. Thus, it serves as an acceptable benchmark for such a brief study as this.) In January of 1547, the devil publicly raped the Roman Catholic Church. Is that strong language? Not at all! Why? The Council of Trent anathematized the Gospel! This is no light matter indeed, for men, women, and children have been brutalized by their wickedness ever since. One rapist in turn has created another. It is not sufficient to lay to their charge the utter foolishness of superstition reining from 1300 A.D. until the reformation, but at this juncture in their history, their fate was sealed by doctrines of demons. The Council of Trent set forth in their sixth session a “decree” “celebrated” on January 13th. Not only have they continued in their rape of the Gospel until now, but they openly declared it a “celebration” at that time. First, in their introduction, they made it plain that they were exceedingly serious about what they were about to teach. They state that they “strictly forbid that anyone henceforth presume to believe, preach or teach otherwise than is defined and declared in the present decree.” In other words, they were not shadowboxing here. The gloves have come off and the war has begun. There, politically and religiously, they were speaking ex cathedra for all time.

Their first attempt to destroy justification appears in chapter 4 where they state that the blessing of justification is bestowed by the “laver of regeneration” which is their rite of infant baptism. Justification is here seen as something God infuses within an infant when they are baptized. Thus you see the urgency for the them to christen their children. Then in chapter 7 the doctrinal abrogation seriously begins when they deny forensic justification all together. They say the instrumental cause of justification, again, is the sacrament of baptism. They say that justification is something done “within us” which refers to infusion, not imputation – something they completely deny. It is bestowed upon the sinner “according to each one’s disposition and cooperation.” Thus the sinner must, in ritualistic form, cooperate with God in order to be justified (where the Arminians really pull their doctrine from.) They say that the love of God poured forth by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men, is a description of justification that “inheres in them.” They must be infused with a righteousness given to them in a sacerdotal blessing. The priest, magically, infuses the righteousness of Christ in them through his incantations and rituals. At the start, this is seen in infant baptism. Children are infused by the priest with the righteousness of Christ through the sprinkling of water. If the infant dies without being baptized, he will wind up in limbus infantum, a place just over the flames of hell reserved for infants. When these infants are infused, then grow up into responsible adults, and the righteousness they gained can now be lost. When they sin, they loose the righteousness once gained and then must regain sit again. This is done through the various sacraments of the Roman Catholic tradition handed down almost exclusively through Pope Innocent III. They must confess, do penance, bear contrition, etc, to regain the righteousness again, and then the cycle starts all over again when they sin. Trent says in Chapter 14 that the infusing of lost righteousness is not only attained by humility before God, “but also the sacramental confession of those sins.” In other words, once the infusion of justification and the righteousness of Christ leaks out of the “infused believer,” they have to fill up the sieve again through the sacraments of their church. By working again, justification is attained and sanctification may continue. In their mind, the two are blurred into something that God works into the believer on the basis and merit of what they do or do not do. Thus, they believe, as chapter 15 states, “that the grace of justification once received is lost” but also “faith itself is lost.” They continually end up in a never ending cycle of a works salvation, and hopefully, when they die, a priest can reach them in time to perform last rites to ensure that they had some righteousness in them to make it to purgatory. Does this really sound helpful at all?

After the chapters describing their position, they state these positions succienctly in their canons, or doctrines, which are not to be rejected “except ye be damned.” If they are rejected, those who do no believe are anathematized and considered damned to hell for all eternity. (Though the pope now calls Protestant “separated brethren” he must say this tongue in cheek since his own canons deny the truth of it. Here they are simply making themselves ecumenically “look good.”) In canons 1-3 they condemn, rightly, Pelagianism, though they will affirm it in a few chapters later in different wording. However in canon 4 they begin their assault on the Reformation in anathematizing anyone who believes that regeneration precedes faith. In Canon 5 they anathematize anyone who believes that free will is destroyed after the fall. They say, “If anyone says that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed, or that it is a thing only in name, indeed a name without a reality, a fiction introduced into the church by Satan, let him be anathema.” In other words, all those holding to regeneration preceding faith are damned to hell. Then in Canon 9 they say, “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.” How much more plain might they be? Well, I suppose not plain enough, since, not only do they deny justification by faith alone, but also forensic justification altogether, “If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghosts, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.” And they do not stop there. As Luther nailed the theses to door in 1517, they nail the reformers to their own wall in Canon 12, “If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence [faith] in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.” Simple stated, they deny forensic justification completely, and hate the idea of imputation altogether. In reality, the reason why this is hated to such and extent is that it removes the power they have to control men. By believing in forensic justification the church is left to edify believers, not control them.

Now, at this point, if you did not understand the terms above, those like forensic justification, imputation, infusion, and the like, hopefully I will be able to make all this clear so that you will understand the doctrine of justification in a precise and cogent manner, over and against the heresy of the Roman Catholics, or any other religion which would exalt its own rituals over the power of the Gospel.

Let me begin by describing a conversation between a Roman Catholic and a Biblical theologian. The Roman Catholic says he believes in justification. So does the biblical theologian. They both agree that their doctrine is biblical, though the Catholic thinks that the reasons he is right is because the papacy has sealed such information by speaking on behalf of God. Then they both agree that God is one who justifies, but the biblical theologian attempts to press the fact that it is by faith. Now the Roman Catholic will say it is by faith as well. This bewilders the biblical theologian. He thought only Protestants believed in justification by faith. But the then the biblical theologian remembers that he believes in justification by faith alone. He smiles and awaits the Catholics response. Now a good Roman Catholic theologian will say he believes in justification by faith alone as well. (Really, I am serious.) The biblical theologian is bewildered again. How can this be? I thought only Protestants believed this. Well, at this point, most Christians would be stumped. But the theologian ponders things a minute and states that the saved Christian is someone who is “declared” righteous by God. He thinks he has won. Well, the Roman theologian agrees as well. Surely, God declares men righteous. This is again bewildering to the biblical theologian. He thought he cornered him there. How much further must he go? Where could he go? At this point the biblical theologian is at a critical juncture where precision is called for. I think an illustration may help clarify the difference between the biblical view and the Roman Catholic view, as well as all other views.

A. H. Strong, a Baptist scholar who rubbed shoulders with Warfield and Hodge, gave the following illustration that I think clarifies the situation. Imagine a train with boxcars attached to the steam engine. Now the boxcars are attached together by the clasp at each intersection and finally to the steam engine by the lead car. Those clasps lock each boxcar of the train together to be pulled behind one another, and ultimate by the steam engine. Now the boxcars are Christians. These boxcars are completely black and filled with dung. They do not have a tint of white on them. The clasps are “faith” by which they are joined to the steam engine. The steam engine is Christ. The steam engine is completely white with no trace of black in or on it at all. Christ, the engine, pulls the boxcars along the track. Is this a simple illustration so far? I think it is. Now the Roman Catholic will say that God looks at the boxcar and the steam engine pulling the boxcar and declares the boxcar justified in his sight. Be reminded, the boxcar did something to earn this, and God declares him just on the basis of his work, and what Christ accomplished on his behalf. This is called an analytic declaration. God analyzes the car and the engine together, and on that basis He declares the boxcar righteous and infuses it with grace which can be lost depending upon what the boxcar actually does. Now the biblical theologian rejects that altogether. He says that God forensically declares the boxcar just synthetically. This means that God only looks upon the steam engine alone. Based on the work of the steam engine alone He declares the boxcar just. For the Roman Catholic, the boxcar turns white when it is infused with righteousness and then turns black again when it looses it. Thus it is in a continual flux at attempting to be justified. It is no wonder why all strewn though their 16 chapters in the sixth session of Trent they continually press the point that men cannot know if they are truly saved since they repeatedly need to be infused with a righteousness they frequently lose. But the biblical theologian knows that on the merit of Christ alone men are declared just (actus forensis) in God’s sight – the very thing the Council of Trent anathematizes. This is a one time act which cannot be recanted or lost. It a court-room judgment of God on the sinner for his eternal soul.

The Council of Trent is doing the very thing that Proverbs 17:15 says is an abomination to the Lord, “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD.” The Roman Catholic Church takes wicked men and justifies them. This is an abomination. Some may be confused at this point. Let me clarify it. The boxcar is never infused or changed. It remains a black boxcar. Yet, it must be noted that the Latin phrase simil iustus et peccator, at the same time just and sinner, stands true. While men are still sinners, it does not mean that God justifies the sinner. No not at all. Rather, God imputes to the account of the sinner the righteousness of Christ (iustitia Christi). Imputation means to “charge to one’s account.” When I transfer $100 from my account to your account a type of imputation has taken place. In the case of the cross of Christ, His righteousness was charged to my account (though I am still a sinner) and my sin was charged to His account (though He remains pure and without sin). He took the punishment of my sin as a sin bearer, and I received the merit of His righteousness reckoned to my account. This is imputation. Now, when God looks upon the sinner He sees the imputed righteousness of Christ (iustitia imputata) and declares the sinner just because of it. He does not justify the sinner as a sinner, but justifies the sinner because of the righteousness of Christ. Luther used the illustration of a dung heap covered in gold. Though we would see a pile of gold, underneath it is still a dung heap. God justifies on the basis of the gold, not what is under it, where the Roman Catholic justifies on the basis of both the dung and the gold – thus justifying the wicked.

The cause of justification, the causa impulsive, is divided into the causa impulsiva interna – internal impelling cause or love of God for His Son – and the causa impulsiva externa –the righteousness of Christ. The compulsion of God to justify comes from the love He bears for His Son. Romans 3:24 states, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It does not find its basis on anything men do. It is solely based on what God sees in the merit of His Son’s active and passive obedience for those for whom He died (obedentia positiva and obedentia passiva). This act of grace (actus gratiae) is something which is disassociated from the one justified, though he is the recipient of the act. Literally, men have absolutely nothing to do with being justified by God by such a forensic act. It is the synthetic declaration of God in view of Christ about the merit imputed to the one to whom such merit is now transferred. Thus God is actually declaring men who have this righteousness as justified without ever seeing those who are justified. It is like an umbrella in the hand of man while it is raining. The rain is wrath of God. But the man has an umbrella, a covering, for the rain. Just because a man is under the umbrella does not mean he is not a man, a sinful man. But the umbrella, the righteousness of Christ, protects him from the wrath of God since God declares the umbrella-holders “just” in His sight because of the work the umbrella does on their behalf. If God were to sit on a cloud and look down on the man with the umbrella, all He would see would be the umbrella. That is why he declares them justified in His sight. This is the conditio sine qua non, or the necessary condition for our justification.

Now men will often bock here because I have said that nothing men do account for the act of justification as a forensic declaration of God. Remember, we are being precise here. Men are not responsible, at any point, for the justification of their souls. God justifies them in an act solely based on the merit of Christ. They have absolutely nothing to do with that act at all. Now, to be sure we understand the point in time when this occurs, we must turn to justification by faith. The former statement is trying to stress that it is not justification through faith, but by faith. In other words, when Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it does not mean that faith is the instrumental cause of justification. Rather, it means that faith is the only means whereby God will act on the righteousness of Christ on our behalf. It is only by faith that a man will be justified, but not that justification is through that man’s faith, otherwise, we wind up attending a Roman Catholic Mass. “By faith alone” means that it is without works – that is point – not that it is through faith. Only after men have been regenerated by God (John 3:1ff) and believe by faith through grace (Ephesians 2:8ff) will God act to justify them (Romans 5). Faith is the condition of justification, not its cause. Here is where the precision I spoke about must be again understood.

Justification is not something we experience, like regeneration. In regeneration we receive a new heart. But, in justification we are declared righteousness through the righteousness of Christ. It is also not something we receive and hold onto like sanctification. When we are continually sanctified we are made more like the image of Christ, we are conformed and changed. When we are justified we are declared just. Being declared something does not mean I have received something, or have experienced something. Again, in precision, we must see this. It is a declaration that God “gives,” not something we “get.”

If all this is true, and the Bible does prove this out quite extensively (Romans 3, 5, 8; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Galatians 1-3, 5; Ephesians 2; Titus 3:4-7; James 2) then justification is clearly one of the most important ideas to understand in all of the Bible. Without it, no matter how much work Christ accomplishes, or how much wrath is subsided, how much sin is taken, or how many blessings bestowed, we are never declared just in His sight. What a horrible thought! How could the Roman Catholic endure a day with such thoughts? We would be eternally damned since the gaze of God would consider our sinfulness instead of the righteousness of Christ in our stead. Without this doctrine I could not practically live a life of assurance, or believe I could ever be saved at all. I would be in bondage to my own attainment of salvation, something I loathe to do knowing I cannot be perfect – that which God requires. I would be a prisoner in an inescapable oubliette to work for something I shall never attain. But there is great safety in standing before the judgment seat of God in the righteousness of Christ on the Day of Judgment. It is only by this eternal declaration that such righteousness is sealed for that Day upon us. It is the article by which the church (each member of it) stands or falls before God.

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