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Justification in the Lutheran Confessions and John Calvin
Geoffrey J. Paxton

Geoffrey J. Paxton is an Anglican clergyman and well-known Australian educator and lecturer.

It is widely acknowledged that the great biblical truth of justification by faith was the lifeblood of the Reformation. It is not so widely acknowledged, however, that this doctrine should be the lifeblood of the church today, or even that it is necessary to "split theological hairs" over the precise meaning of the doctrine.

We shall address ourselves to understanding the doctrine of justification as it was promulgated in the sixteenth-century Reformation and then make some observations concerning the place and meaning of the doctrine today.

Justification Is Forgiveness of Sins

For the leaders of the Reformation, one of the simplest ways of talking about justification was to speak of it as the forgiveness of sins. Both the Lutheran confessions and John Calvin spoke of it in this way. The Augsburg Confession (lV.1 -2) says:

    It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.
Notice that "forgiveness of sin" and "righteousness before God" are placed side by side.

The same fact is to be observed in Melanchthon's Apology to the Augsburg Confession (IV.41):
    The promise is not conditioned upon our merits but offers the forgiveness of sins and justification freely . . . .— (our emphasis)

In the same passage, Melanchthon goes on to speak of "the righteousness of God . . . that is, the forgiveness of sins."

Luther's Smalcald Articles declare:

The Holy Spirit offers these treasures to us in the promise of the Gospel, and faith is the only means whereby we can apprehend, accept, apply them to ourselves, and make them our own. Faith is a gift of God whereby we rightly learn to know Christ as our redeemer in the Word of the Gospel and to trust in him, that solely for the sake of his obedience we have forgiveness of sins by grace, are accounted righteous and holy by God the Father, and are saved forever.

Once again, "forgiveness" and "accounted righteous" are placed side by side. Sometimes, as in the Solid Declaration (III.16), it is the "forgiveness of sins" and the "grace of God" and justification that are equated:

This righteousness is offered to us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and in the sacraments, and is applied, appropriated, and accepted by faith, so that thus believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, the grace of God, adoption, and the inheritance of eternal life.

Many more examples could be given to show that righteousness before God and forgiveness of sins are equated in the Lutheran confessions.

What about John Calvin? Calvin likewise saw righteousness before God (justifying righteousness) as the forgiveness of sins:
    It appears, then, that those whom God receives are made righteous in no other wise than as they are purified by being cleansed from all their defilements by the remission of their sins, so that such a righteousness may, in one word, be denominated a remission of sins.—Institutes III.XI.21.
Wilhelm Niesel says that, for Calvin, the judicial action of God can be viewed in two ways: "as the forgiveness of our sins and as the imputation to us of the righteousness of Christ."—The Theology of Calvin, p.132. For Calvin, God justifies by forgiving (cf. Institutes III.XI.11; III.XI.3-4).

Sometimes this fact (i.e., that justification was equated with the forgiveness of sins in the Reformers) has been used by others to reduce justification to mere pardon or mere forgiveness. However, other aspects of the Reformers' teaching (with which we will deal below) should provide sufficient arguments against doing this.

Why did the Reformers sum up justification as forgiveness of sins and, at times, only the forgiveness of sins? In a word, seeing justification as forgiveness of sins helped the Reformers stress the external, extrinsic, outside-of-the-believer nature of justification. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to include in justification the reality of inner renewal, sanctification or the new birth. The Reformers acknowledged these realities. They even acknowledged that justification cannot be separated from inner renewal. But the Reformers wished to clearly distinguish between the two and stress that justification is something outside of the believer.

How did the idea of forgiveness of sins help the Reformers to do this? To begin with, forgiveness is something that always takes place outside the one who needs the forgiveness. When my brother forgives me, the forgiveness is something that takes place in my brother. I experience the effects or results of the forgiveness, but we say again, forgiveness is something that takes place in my brother. Likewise, when God forgives the sinner, God removes the ground of offense as far as He is concerned. He treats the sinner as though there were no offense. The sinner enjoys the benefits or effects of "the change of attitude" in God (cf. Luke 7:47).

So it is that when the Reformers stressed justification as forgiveness, they were seeking to highlight the extrinsic nature of justification.

Justification Is Being Declared Righteous on the Grounds of the Righteousness of Another

The believing sinner is accepted before God on the basis of the righteousness that belongs to Someone else—namely, Jesus Christ. Luther's friend, Melanchthon, put it well:

    In this passage "justify" is used in a judicial way to mean "to absolve a guilty man and pronounce him righteous," and to do so on account of someone else's righteousness, namely, Christ's, which is communicated to us through faith. Since in this passage our righteousness is the imputation of someone else's righteousness, we must speak of righteousness in a different way here from the philosophical or judicial investigation of a man's own righteousness, which certainly resides in the will. Paul says (I Cor. 1.30), "He is the source of your life in Jesus Christ, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." And II Cor. 5.21, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." —Apology V.305-306; cf. XX.19.
The Solid Declaration (III. 56) lays out exactly what constitutes this "someone else's righteousness." This righteousness consists in the obedience and passion of Jesus Christ—in fact, in the total obedience of Jesus Christ, the God-man:
    For even though Christ had been conceived by the Holy Spirit without sin and had been born and had in his human nature alone fulfilled all righteousness but had not been true, eternal God, the obedience and passion of the human nature could not be reckoned to us as righteousness. Likewise, if the Son of God had not become man, the divine nature alone could not have been our righteousness. Therefore we believe, teach, and confess that the total obedience of Christ's total person, which he rendered to his heavenly Father even to the most ignominious death of the cross, is reckoned to us as righteousness. For neither the obedience nor the passion of the human nature alone, without the divine nature, could render satisfaction to the eternal and almighty God for the sins of all the world. Likewise, the deity alone, without the humanity, could not mediate between God and us.
The message is the same in the Solid Declaration (II 1.9). We are saved ". . . solely through the merit of the total obedience, the bitter passion, the death and resurrection of Christ." The context of this quotation makes it clear that the obedience of Christ, the God-man, is reckoned to us as righteousness.

Calvin, once again, saw justification as having Someone else's righteousness. He refers to a beautiful illustration of Ambrose to make this point:
    Wherefore Ambrose appears to me to have very beautifully exemplified this righteousness in the benediction of Jacob; that as he, who had on his own account no claim to the privileges of primogeniture, being concealed in his brother's habit and invested in his garment, which diffused a most excellent odor, insinuated himself into the favour of his father, that he might receive the benediction to his own advantage, under the character of another; so we shelter ourselves under the precious purity of Christ our elder brother that we may obtain the testimony of righteousness in the sight of God.—Institutes lll.XI.23.

Hence, justification is being looked upon in the "habit" of our elder Brother, Jesus Christ. We are qualified before God with the qualification of Jesus Christ. We graduate before God with the degree of Jesus Christ. Calvin was fond of Romans 5:19 in this regard: "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous."

The reader will have noticed that we used the heading, "Being Declared Righteous on the Grounds of the Righteousness of Another." We have shown some sample passages from the Reformers to support that, as far as our acceptance with God is concerned, the basis or ground of that acceptance is the total obedience of the God-man, Jesus Christ, the habit of our elder Brother.

"But," we might ask, "where is that righteousness on the ground of which God accepts us?" The question is important. Is this righteousness within us, and God, seeing it there, accepts us; or is this righteousness outside of us? The Reformers answered this question by saying that the righteousness of that Someone else remains with that Someone else at God's right hand. When God looks upon that righteousness for our acceptance, He does not look at the believer. Rather, God looks at His Son sitting at His own right hand.

Luther spoke of justifying righteousness as an alien righteousness, signifying that this acceptable righteousness before God is proper to God but foreign to us as far as our here-and-now life is concerned. Calvin gave the following commendation:

This is a wonderful method of justification, that sinners, being invested with the righteousness of Christ, dread not the judgment which they have deserved and that, while they justly condemn themselves, they are accounted righteous outside themselves. —Institutes III.XI.11.

The word "Declared" in our second heading means that God imputes, reckons, counts the righteousness of Christ at His right hand as the righteousness on the basis of which He accepts the sinner.

Maintaining Two Important Aspects of Justification

In discussing justification, it is very important to keep together the two points we have made: (1) that justification is forgiveness and (2) that justification is on the grounds of Another's righteousness. If we have only the first point, we may fall into the trap of thinking that justification means mere pardon or mere forgiveness. That would be to suggest (at best) or to state blatantly (at worst) that God blithely wipes aside the wrongdoing of the human race. But when we keep the second point in mind, we will realize that the forgiveness of God is not a groundless forgiveness. We will understand that God does not wink at sin with a sort of celestial "let bygones be bygones."

There are some important things to say about maintaining these two aspects of justification:

1. There are those who think that for God to require the debt of the human race to be paid "before" He accepts those who have wronged Him is unworthy of God, or that those who assert such are holding a substandard (the word used to be "pagan") view of God. But those who think like this do not understand what the Bible teaches about God, or if they do, they simply set themselves up against the Bible. Both alternatives are serious indeed and should be repented of immediately.

The next thing that this writer is expected to say is that God is a God of justice and law, and God demands that His law be fulfilled. Now this, of course, is true, but we are not going to stress this point at the present. That would only aggravate those who think that "evangelical" Protestants have a substandard view of God.

Then what are we going to say next? That all who think the view of God propounded here is unworthy of God have made a serious error. Rather than thinking of God (the Father) as exacting the debt from an innocent Jesus of Nazareth (the Son) and then letting the sinner go free, we need to bear in mind the words of Paul: "God [the Father] was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, no longer holding men's misdeeds against them..." (2 Cor. 5:19). What this (and other texts) say is that God has Himself, in and through His Son, both exacted and paid the penalty.

Now we may speak of God as being a God of justice and One who upholds His law. Who thinks that this God is a God who is unworthy of love and adoration?

Evangelical Protestants must do some repenting, too. We have been just as bad as those who do not like the idea of God as needing a ground for forgiveness. If they have forgotten to think like Christians, so have we. For we have so stressed the obedience of the Son that we, too, have separated the Father from the Son. We have not stressed the type of statement (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:19) we find in the Bible. We have actually helped people to think in an un-Christian way. That does indeed call for repentance!

2. We have said that it is important to maintain (1) justification as forgiveness and (2) justification on the grounds of Another's righteousness. But those who think that the view of God required by keeping these two aspects of justification together is sub-Christian often appeal to forgiveness in everyday life. They say, "We do not think that forgiveness is forgiveness if it needs a ground or basis in order for it to take place."

Of course, it is true that this is what we think about forgiveness. That is why this type of argument often carries weight against the view of God. But we need to repent of our thinking concerning forgiveness in everyday life, for it too is ungodly.

Let us state this another way. The "everyday-life" view of forgiveness is not Christian. That is, it is not part of the Christian religion. Nowhere in the Bible do we have a groundless forgiveness. The Bible commands us to forgive others because (on the ground that) God has forgiven us. In other words, the gospel is the ground on which the believer forgives others. If not, he would be behaving in an ungodly way. To go on groundlessly forgiving is to go on saying that law (right and wrong) does not matter. We have seen that God has not acted in this way; and if God has not, neither should we.

Thus, those who point to a godless way of forgiveness in everyday life can hardly use that argument against the way God does things. Once again, however, we "evangelical" Protestants have often embraced that approach to forgiveness ourselves. And we have therefore helped people to think wrongly about the Bible.

3. Finally, the union of forgiveness and satisfaction in God's acquittal of the sinner is that which the disturbed conscience needs. God has provided a remedy for the sinner that really meets his need.

Mercy without proper grounds has a horrible habit of making the conscience restive. Forgiveness without satisfaction is a lawless (capricious) forgiveness. If we have come into fellowship lawlessly, what is there to say that we will not go out of fellowship equally lawlessly?

A god of mere forgiveness is a god of mere condemnation. A god of mere condemnation is a god who provides no grounds of trust in him as one who will go on being merciful to us.

The God and Father of Jesus Christ is no such god. The righteousness of God is the merciful and just saving action of God to redeem His people. It is the merciful and just action of God! In his saving action in Jesus Christ, God has exercised His justice. Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit mediates the knowledge of our just forgiveness.

The Reformers were directed by the Word of the gospel in their insistence on forgiveness and satisfaction. They realized that only such will give glory to God and rest to the troubled conscience.

Justifications is by "faith without the deeds of the Law"

The Reformers' view of faith, obtained from the Bible, is supportive of the two aspects of God's justification which we have discussed. Justification by faith is not justification because of any merit or worth in faith itself. There is nothing in faith itself which impresses God. It is not even that faith justifies because it is nothing in itself. (This view of faith has not been without its exponents.) Rather, faith justifies because everything except Christ is repudiated as our acceptance with God —even faith itself. Faith is the believing sinner's laying hold on Christ and Christ alone for his acquittal before God.

There is a need to hear this word of the Bible again today, not least in evangelical circles. Evangelicalism has become very "decision oriented." From the true biblical-Reformational understanding of faith, we have moved to the notion that salvation depends upon our own personal, existential decision. The necessity of laying hold on the gospel for salvation has taken such prominence that it has, in all too many instances, become the gospel. No doubt this has arisen, in part, because of a serious non-sequitur. Because the Bible makes it clear that no person will be saved without faith, we have come to regard faith as part-cause (at best) or cause (at worst) of that salvation. Salvation then comes to rest upon the merit of Christ and (one of the most mischievous words in theology!) the making real of that merit by our existential decision. Many evangelicals need to relearn the truth that the necessity of faith does not mean that faith is cause or part-cause of God's acceptance. There is a succession in this matter of the gospel and faith—a succession or sequentiality (Latin, sequi, follow) which does not imply causality on the part of faith.

Yes, many of us evangelicals have to relearn the worthlessness of faith in itself if we are to catch the tenor of the Bible and the emphasis of the Reformers.

The disastrous mixing of the righteousness of Christ and the regeneration and inner renewal of the believer (as taught by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in the sixteenth century), which is prevalent in much evangelicalism, so often starts in the evangelist's tent. Forgiveness is presented as God's part (the cross) and our part (laying hold of the cross in faith). Right at the very beginning of the Christian's existence, merit is lodged within. the believer. That which takes place in the believer (faith) is accorded a place alongside of that which took place for the believer (the doing and dying of Jesus Christ).

Here lies the root of so many of our problems within evangelicalism. Uncertainty of salvation—here is its root. Introspection—need we dig past this point? The looking back to my decision for Christ instead of to God's decision for me in Christ is also to be found in this elevation of faith to an unwarranted status.

Let us recognize that this type of thinking is not only given prominence in historic Roman Catholicism, but it is also discernible in so much modern theology. Faith is given the same rank as that which took place in Palestine. Faith is given a specific weight of its own. Faith is accorded a place in the true, saving content of the gospel. What God has done for me and what God does in me are seen as much the same thing. Faith cooperates in the achievement of salvation. Instead of the gospel controlling faith, faith controls the gospel. The content of the gospel is dictated by faith instead of the content of faith being dictated by the gospel. Instead of God rewriting man's history in Jesus Christ, man now rewrites the history of God in his existential saving appropriation. Faith cooperates in the resurrection!

This mentality is Roman Catholic and "liberal." What we accuse others of, we do ourselves.

It is time to hear the testimony of the Reformers on this point. Calvin says that the power

    of justifying attached to faith, consists not in the worthiness of the act. Our justification depends solely on the mercy of God and the merit of Christ, which when faith apprehends it is said to justify us. —Institutes III.XVIII.9.

The Solid Declaration (III.13-14) is also explicit:

For faith does not justify because it is so good a work and so God pleasing a virtue, but because it lays hold on and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel. This merit has to be applied to us and to be made our own through faith if we are to be justified thereby. Therefore the righteousness which by grace is reckoned to faith or to the believers is the obedience, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ when he satisfied the law for us and paid for our sin.

Faith takes its value from its Object. There is nothing in faith itself which can commend it to God. Only Christ can save. In Luther and Calvin's day some taught that faith may be said to justify because it is "fashioned by love." However, this view was rejected:

They should be interpreted, so they say, as referring to "faith fashioned by love," that is, they do not attribute justification to faith except on account of love. Indeed, they do not attribute justification to faith at all, but only to love, because they imagine that faith can exist with mortal sin. Where does this end but with the abolition of the promise and a return to the law? If faith receives the forgiveness of sins on account of love, the forgiveness of sins will always be unsure, for we never love as much as we should. In fact, we do not love at all unless our hearts are sure that the forgiveness of sins has been granted to us. If our opponents require us to trust in our own love for the forgiveness of sins and justification, they completely abolish the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins. For men can neither render nor understand this love unless they believe that the forgiveness of sins is received freely.—Augsburg Confession IV.109-110.

In the quotation from Luther just given, we should notice the concern for the tender conscience. If faith receives forgiveness on account of love, the forgiveness of sins will always be unsure. Legalism is dishonoring to God and unkind to man.

The Lutherans also rejected the notion
    That faith indeed has the most prominent role in justification, but that also renewal and love belong to our righteousness before God, not indeed as if it were the primary cause of our righteousness, but that nevertheless our righteousness before God is incomplete and imperfect without such love and renewal.—Formula of Concord III.20.
Calvin's designation of faith as "an empty vessel" has become justly famous:
    . . . for unless we come empty with the mouth of our soul open to implore the grace of Christ, we cannot receive Christ. . . . For faith, although intrinsically it is of no dignity or value, justifies us by an application of Christ, just as a vessel full of money constitutes a man rich. —Institutes III.XI.7.

Faith is like the eye; it never sees itself. Faith neither comes from the self nor goes toward the self. Faith is not introverted, turned in upon itself.

Do we appreciate what is being said here? What is the object of faith? Let us put the question in another form: What is it that inspires faith and makes it come into being day by day? There is only one answer to this as far as the Bible and the Reformers are concerned: the gospel.

The one answer, of course, is expressed in many different ways. The object of faith is grace and the forgiveness of sin (Augsburg Confession XX.28). The object of faith is reconciliation because of Christ:

For the law requires our own works and our own perfection. But to us, oppressed by sin and death, the promise freely offers reconciliation for Christ's sake, which we do not accept by works but by faith alone. —Apology V.44.

The Solid Declaration (III.41) says: "Faith apprehends the grace of God in Christ whereby the person is justified."

We should notice that in each of the ways of speaking about the object of faith, it is objective to faith. Does this not say a lot to us evangelicals? Let us consider, for example, the honored "testimony meeting" within evangelicalism. More often than not, the focus of these testimonies is "what God is doing in my life." So often our rationale is that this will "encourage faith." But where does the Bible say this? Does not the Bible say that faith comes by hearing and hearing the message of Christ? (Rom. 10:17). If that which creates and sustains faith is objective to faith, why do we turn our eyes and the eyes of other Christians to something subjective?1

If forgiveness is outside the believer and the ground of acceptance is outside the believer, the focus of faith is also outside the believer. God saves us and turns us inside out. The testimony of the Bible, which the Reformers rediscovered, is that the power of God lies in the gospel. If this is the case, we cannot be too concerned to see that the gospel does not get lost in many of our traditions and subcultural qualifications.

Denial of the Subjective?

We conclude this look at some aspects of justification in the Lutheran confessions and John Calvin by taking up an accusation which is often leveled at the perspective which we find in these confessions and in those who do not wish us to forget these confessions. We refer, of course, to the accusation that such a perspective denies the subjective element in Christian existence.

This accusation is puzzling. As one reads the writers of the Bible and the works of the Reformers, it is plain that one is reading the writings of men who were excited to such a degree that words almost failed them! These men knew what it was to have a wonderful experience. They never ceased to speak and write about it. How many of us moderns have written more than Luther and Calvin? Someone who can fill over fifty' weighty volumes was obviously excited and motivated by something! A man who has no subjective experience would write nothing.

We wish to suggest that the clash between the approach of the Reformers and so much of our modern theology ("popular" and academic) is not a clash over subjective versus nonsubjective. Rather, the clash is over vastly different subjective contents. The content of the subjective experience of the Reformers and so many of us modern Christians is very different. The Reformers were excited (subjective!) about the gospel which lay outside of them (Col. 3:1-3). The subjective preoccupation of the Reformers was with the objective gospel. For them, the subjective content was the objective doing and dying of Jesus Christ.

In so much of today's evangelical theology the preoccupation of the subjective is with the subjective. The eye is turned in upon itself. Infatuation is a subjective state, but there is a vast difference between the man who is infatuated with his wife and the man who is infatuated with himself or with his infatuation with his wife.

When we stop to look at the commentaries of Calvin on the Bible, it is not difficult to see that with which he was carried away. It cannot pass as incidental that in an age which testifies to an "outpouring of the Spirit" such as has not taken place since Pentecost, real refreshing commentaries on Holy Scripture are not plentiful. What are plentiful are books that indicate the preoccupation of the subjective with itself. God is pulled down out of heaven to give divine sanction to this sickness.

So it is that to honor the subjective element does not mean to be preoccupied with the subjective. Likewise, to focus on the objective does not mean to dishonor the subjective. Indeed, the subjective is truly legitimate and God-honoring when its focus is on the objective. We will go so far as to say that those who do not focus on the objective do not know what a real and marvelous subjective experience is! For when the subjective preoccupation of man is with the objective action of God in Christ, the subjective dimension of human existence fulfills its creation by God.



1 The idea of "being a good witness for the Lord" needs careful investigation from a biblical perspective. We would heartily recommend Allison A. Trites' book, The New Testament Concept of Witness (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), as a disturbing starter.

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