One of the great misconceptions about the Western church before the Reformation and therefore about the Reformation reaction to it is that the medieval church taught “salvation by works” or, more precisely, “justification by works” whereas the Reformation taught “salvation by grace” or, more precisely, “justification by grace.” There are a couple of reasons why this way of speaking is misleading or problematic.
First, the claim that the medieval and the Tridentine (and post-Tridentine) Roman Church (even today) teaches justification by works is a true conclusion and a powerful but misleading slogan because one will not find many medieval or counter-Reformation or post-Reformation Roman theologians or Councils or Papal decrees saying “justified by works.” Because the debate was (and is) rather more nuanced, sometimes Protestants are surprised to read the medieval and Roman theologians speaking so often and so effusively about grace.
Indeed, the Roman system of salvation (and justification) is positively infused (pun intended) with grace. Remember through the course of medieval history the Western church developed an elaborate sacramental system designed to impart grace to the sinner at every turn. So, a medieval or Roman theologian, when accused baldly of teaching justification by works could quite rightly reply, “What do you mean? There has never been such a gracious system of salvation!”
Here is the problem, and it is a very important problem touching the New Perspective(s) on Paul, the Federal Vision, and other sorts of covenantal moralists. It is too often assumed that the only categories by which these problems, e.g., Paul and Second Temple Judaism, the Reformation reaction to the medieval church, may be analyzed are the categories “Pelagian” or “AntiPelagian.” This is a mistake. Though the Reformation often used the adjective “Pelagian” to describe the Roman soteriology, and there were some late medieval theologians who advocated a doctrine of salvation that came perilously close to genuine Pelagianism, in the main, the medieval and Roman soteriology was not actually Pelagian any more than most Second Temple rabbis were baldly Pelagian (i.e. teaching that we are not sinners until we sin and therefore do not necessarily need grace). The Rabbis recognized that we are sinful, but they held we are not so sinful that we cannot keep the law. They had-at least some of them-a doctrine of sin and grace and so did most medieval theologians and so did Trent and so does Vatican II and the Roman catechism.
Failure to recognize that, in each of these cases, the opponents of either Paul or Luther, had a doctrine of depravity and grace, has led too many to think that so long as they acknowledge sin and grace and especially in Calvinist circles, so long as they say “sovereign grace” that everything else they say is “covered” as it were. As a matter of fact, just as there were late medieval theologians who verged on Pelagianism, so too there were late medieval theologians who had a high view of divine sovereignty. Those late medieval, neo-Augustinian theologians who taught a high doctrine of sin and a high doctrine of grace also taught that we are justified because we are sanctified. They taught that God sovereignly works sanctity within us. To be sure a recovery of the doctrines of depravity and sovereign grace were essential to the Reformation but they alone were not sufficient. Not all Second Temple rabbis denied the need for grace. Most medieval theologians were not baldly Pelagian. Most of them taught, in one way or another, the necessity of grace and cooperation with grace toward justification. Like modem covenantal moralists, they taught justification by grace and cooperation with grace. They were and are “semi-Pelagian.” Augustine not only rejected Pelagianism but also semi-Pelagianism (grace and cooperation with grace). The Reformation rejected both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. For the Protestant Reformers, to say “and cooperation with grace” is to deny the material doctrine of the Reformation, justification by unmerited divine favor alone, through faith resting on and receiving Christ’s finished work alone. The doctrine of justification by grace and cooperation with grace attempts to synthesize two contrary principles: grace and works. When it comes to justification there is no synthesizing grace and works. Either we stand before the perfectly holy God on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us sinners and received by unmerited divine favor alone through faith (defined as a certain knowledge and a hearty trust or leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified alone) or we do not. It is not possible for a Reformed Christian to speak of justification “by grace and works.” If it is by grace, then it is not by works and if it is in the tiniest bit by our works, even if that work is described as Spirit-wrought sanctity by which we are empowered to cooperate with grace, then justification is no longer by grace. This is what Paul says in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” or in 2 Timothy 1:9, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…. “
The medieval church taught (and the Roman church today teaches) that God the Spirit sovereignly works grace within the sinner creating sanctity (holiness). They called this Spirit-wrought sanctity “condign merit.” It is condign or worthy of divine acceptance because it is perfect and it is said to be perfect because it is Spirit-wrought. Nevertheless the sinner is obligated to cooperate with grace or there can be no merit.
Remarkably, the covenantal moralists of our day are arguing a very similar program. There are two outstanding cases that come to mind. A few years ago, in our own federation (the United Reformed Churches in North America), a minister preached a notorious sermon in which it was argued that, at the judgment, we shall stand before God not on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ but on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity by virtue of our union with Christ. This sermon caused a complaint to the minister’s consistory and the matter eventually came to Synod where our churches responded by affirming our belief in the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as the sole ground of our justification.
There is no doubt that the Reformed churches confess the necessity of Spirit-wrought sanctity and even grace and cooperation with grace but not for justification. The fundamental distinction that Paul made, and that the Reformation recovered, is the distinction between justification as the divine declaration of righteousness and the sanctification as the progressive out working of that righteousness in our lives as a consequence of justification. This is why our catechism is in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. The last section flows from the second. It is the result, the consequence of it, not the basis or even the instrument by which we stand before God now or ever.
Second, this is why the Reformation theologians and churches were so careful to use the solas, the “alones” (or, in Luther’s case, ailein). This is why we say “by grace alone.” When we say “by grace alone” we are intentionally rejecting the formula of”grace and cooperation with grace.” When it comes to standing before the all righteous God there is no “and.” This is why we say “through faith alone.” Faith is resting in and receiving Christ and his finished work. It is leaning on Christ. With respect to justification, faith is only a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ and his finished work “for us.” With respect to justification we do not speak about his ongoing work in us. Faith, in the declaration of justification, receives, it looks to another, it is an open, empty hand. It is not our doing, and its power is not anything to do with us or anything wrought in us. The power of faith in the act of justification is in its object: Christ and his perfect obedience for us and imputed to us.
This is why we say “in Christ alone.” He and his righteousness for us is the object of faith in the declaration of justification. Faith does not look to or at anything or anyone else. It does not look at the believer or anything wrought in the believer by the Spirit. In this point Synod Schererville did a great service to the URCNA and to the entire confessional Reformed community. By it we send a message not only to ourselves about how we understand God’s Word and our confession but also where we stand in a fundamental issue in the current debate. One may hope that our sister churches will give special attention to this particular point.
For a very long time before the Reformation, in an effort to get Christ’s people to behave themselves, some of the fathers and virtually all of the medieval theologians defined justification as sanctification and they defined sanctification as Spirit-wrought, producing condign merit, with which we must cooperate. The defined faith in this process of justification as, in effect, trusting and obeying or trusting and cooperating with grace or as trusting and being “formed by love.” These are all different ways of saying the same thing. The medieval church never denied that faith involved trusting Christ but the medieval church (and Trent following that tradition) denied that faith, in justification, is only confidence (the word used by the Council of Trent) in or trusting in Christ and his finished work. Faith, in the process of justification, they said, is “formed by love.” This expression “formed by love” means “can be said to exist to the degree one is sanctified.” To be “formed” in this case means “to be brought to reality.” In other words, the medieval doctrine was that one is as justified as one is intrinsically, inherently, personally sanctified. Now you can appreciate why Luther was so terrified of God. He was perfectly sane and he actually believed what the medieval church confessed. He knew that he was not perfectly sanctified and thus he knew that he was not justified.
Of course the medieval church had a sort of escape clause. While they said that to be justified one must do one’s part, one must cooperate with grace, one must be filled with condign merit, they also recognized that perfection does not usually happen in this life and thus they developed a doctrine of”congruent merit” whereby God is said to have promised to impute perfection to our best efforts. Some late medieval theologians spoke of a divine covenant: “To those who do what lies within themselves, God will not deny grace.” This was the sort of covenant theology that Luther was taught before he rebelled against the entire system of justification through sanctification.
The Protestant Reformers utterly rejected congruent merit and this false covenant theology. In its place they taught a covenant theology flowing from their doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The Reformed covenant theology taught an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son, covenant of works before the fall, and a covenant of grace after the fall. Repeatedly, however, various forms of covenant moralism have resurrected the old congruent merit scheme. Even today some of our covenant moralists have resurrected the old congruent merit scheme. They recognize that our cooperation with grace is imperfect and thus, like the medieval theologians, they say that God has promised to impute perfection to our best efforts.
With this background you can also appreciate why the Protestants were so clear about their re-definition of justification. It is no longer to be considered a process but rather a once-for-all declaration by God about sinners, that they really are righteous before God, not on the basis of anything done by them or wrought by the Spirit in them, but only on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ (who was himself intrinsically and inherently righteous) imputed to believers.
Faith, in justification necessarily can be nothing more than resting, trusting, receiving, and leaning upon Christ and his finished work. If it is anything other than these things, if it involves the least bit of our cooperation with grace, or our cooperation with Spirit-wrought sanctity, then necessarily the object of faith is no longer Christ and his finished work for us but must also include my cooperation, my Spirit-wrought sanctity. In other words, if faith is anything than what we confess it to be, then it has at least two objects. If so, then we are no longer teaching justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Christ is no longer the sole righteousness and to give it freely to all who believe. If the covenant moralists are correct, Jesus came to make justification possible for those who do their part.
At the Council of Trent, Rome rejected categorically the Protestant definitions of justification and of faith. Rome confesses:
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 Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.
She also says:
If anyone says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.
Rome understands what we confess. Synod Calgary (2004) affirmed that we are justified on the ground of the active obedience of Christ imputed and received through faith alone. Synod Schererville re-affirmed this conviction when it declared, “the Scriptures and confessions…teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.” Synod reaffirmed our confession “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.” The phrase “apart from all works” it refers to Romans 3:28 and Belgic Confession Art 22.
One of the many problems with the covenant moralist definition of faith in justification is that they re-define faith so that it is no longer only a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust” or “leaning and resting on the sole obedience ofChrist crucified.” They redefine faith, in justification, to include “works” or “faithfulness,” or “Spirit-wrought sanctity.” Such a radical re-definition of faith in the act of justification is not only Romanizing, anti-confessional, and poor theology, but it is is also bad biblical exegesis. We can see this if we pay attention to the teaching of James chapter 2.
If we understand what the book of James is about it is not that difficult. Notice the question that James asks in 2: 14 “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” Notice please that James says, “if someone says he has faith … ” (emphasis mine). This is the essential question. As becomes clear through the course of the letter, there were some in the Jerusalem congregation, who were claiming to be Christians, who claimed to believe in Jesus but whose life contradicted their profession of faith. This is why James published his scathing indictment of the congregation. For all practical purposes James placed the congregation under church discipline. He preached the law to them to teach them their sin and to drive them to Christ. This is why James asked, “Can such a faith save him?” (The way the text uses the definite article suggests that the best translation is “this faith” or “such a faith”). Clearly, for James, the question is the sort of faith that the congregation has or lacks. According to James, the congregation has mere historical faith. They know the truth but there is no heartfelt trust in Christ, no leaning upon his perfect righteousness as our substitute and Mediator. Therefore the “faith” they have does not produce fruit. It is a dead faith.
True faith unites one to Christ. Union with Christ produces fruit and that fruit is evidence of true faith. Because they do not manifest the fruit of faith, there is no evidence to support their claim that they have faith. James ticks off a series of examples illustrating the incongruity of their claim to faith and their lives. They refuse to share basic necessities with fellow Christians (vv. 15–16). In v. 17 he says, “This faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” This faith is no true faith. It would be helpful if, in the English translation, the editors put “faith” in quotation marks to indicate James’ attitude toward their claim to faith. This becomes clear in v. 18. They will show their workless “faith” and James will show his faith “by” his works.
He reminded them of the most basic Hebrew confession of faith: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4). He reminded them that they recited this confession every Sabbath in the Synagogue. Mere formal confession is necessary but it is not sufficient. After all, even the demons believe and know that God is one. James argued that Abraham was vindicated by his works when he offered up Isaac (v. 21). “Was not Abraham our father declared to be just by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Remember the question that James is asking, about “such a faith.” We know that Abraham had true faith because he offered up his son. He believed God’s promise. He believed in the resurrection. God did not declare Abraham righteous because or through his works or even because of or through “covenant faithfulness.” Rather James was making the point that, unlike his congregation, Abraham (whom they claimed as their father) had true faith in Christ and demonstrated it with obedience. “Justified” here clearly means “manifested” or “demonstrated.” Notice how James proceeded in verse 22: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” “Completed” makes sense if James is speaking about vindication, about evidence of the reality of true faith, but if it means that his righteousness was not yet completed, well, then we have a difficulty with Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Further, James’ own view of justification before God is clear in James 2:23: “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…. ‘” He taught a clear distinction between righteousness before God and righteousness before humans. “You see that a person is justified [vindicated] by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified [i.e., her faith demonstrated] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (vv. 24–26).
It is not that the Reformed churches oppose sanctification. Quite the opposite is true. Judging by the massive number of volumes devoted by Reformed writers over the centuries it may be said that few traditions in the history of the church have been as passionate about the importance of sanctity as the Reformed tradition. The Reformed faith confesses “Spirit-wrought” sanctity. We believe in and confess the logical and moral necessity of good works as the fruit and evidence of justifying faith but not as the ground or instrument of justification.
Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21 is crystal clear on this:
What is true faith?
True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
The only adjective the catechism uses to describe true faith is “hearty” or “heartfelt” (herzliches) and what makes faith true is that it trusts for justification and salvation alone in the grace of God and the merits of Christ. True faith is a heartfelt faith but one is not justified because one has a heartfelt faith. One is justified through faith alone because Christ obeyed the law for his elect and his benefits are received through faith, resting in and leaning on Christ alone. The alone instrument of justification is true faith and a true faith is a heartfelt faith, as the last clause of question 60 confirms, “if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.”
Since this controversy began in 1974 none of the proponents of what is today called the “Federal Vision” has reconciled the FV redefinition of faith with the clear and unambiguous teaching of HC 21 and 60. In my experience, when proponents of the FV appeal to the catechism they cite questions and answers from the third part of the catechism but that is exactly the problem; by doing so they continue to confuse justification with sanctification. This refusal to recognize the fundamental distinction between justification and sanctification only reinforces the claim of the critics of the FV that they do not accept the basic structure of the Reformed faith: guilt, grace, and gratitude, a structure which the Nine Points of Synod Schererville re-asserted with unmistakable clarity.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, CA) and Associate Pastor of Oceanside, United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.