Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Faith Alone" - The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification

The doctrine of justification involves a legal matter of the highest order.  Indeed it is the legal issue on which the sinner stands or falls: his status before the supreme tribunal of God."
- R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone, Chapter 5, pg 96

This book by theologian R.C. Sproul is a survey of the important 16th century debate that occured between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation specifically regarding the issue of whether or not a sinner is justified before God by faith and works (Roman Catholic) or by faith alone (Reformation).  Rather than being a debate over mere theological jargon, this debate actually went to the most important and core issue regarding the actual definition of being justified before God.  As R.C. Sproul stated, "At the heart of the controversy between Roman Catholic and Reformation theology is the nature of justification itself.  It is a debate not merely about how or when or by what means a person is justified, but about the very meaning of justification."

To be more precise, Sproul demonstrates the main difference between the two explanations of justification as a sinner being "infused with the righteousness of Christ" (Roman Catholic) and a sinner being "imputed with the righteousness of Christ" (Reformation).  The Roman Catholic Church describes justification as infused righteousness, meaning the righteousness of Christ is poured into the very nature of a sinner which then makes that sinner's nature itself "actually" righteous.  That righteousness is then maintained by good works, and can be lost by mortal sins, in which case the sinner then needs to perform good works to regain that righteousness back.  Whereas the Reformation's definition of justification is described as the imputation of Christ's righteousness, which means a sinner places faith in Jesus, then Christ's righteousness is placed over the sinner and is hence "declared" righteous solely because of it.  And the sinner will remain justified based purely on Christ's righteousness alone, apart from any of his own good works, even though the sinner retains a sinful and fallen nature.  Sproul explains the two as follows, "The Roman Catholic view of justification is analytical in that God declares a person to be just when justice (or righteousness) inheres in the subject.  The subject, under divine analysis or scrutiny, is found to be just.  God justifies the just.  The justified person could not have become righteous without the assistance of infused grace, but he is still deemed righteous only when he has become inherently righteous.  Nothing is added by which the person is considered righteous.  The just are declared just because analysis demonstrates that they are just.
By stark and radical contrast the Reformation view of justification is synthetic.  God declares a person just based on something that is added, something that is not inherent in the person: the imputed righteousness of Christ.  The gracious character of our justification stands out in bold relief, revealing that God is both just and the justifier."

Although Sproul himself falls on the side of the Reformation in this debate, he gives a very fair and balanced representation of both viewpoints regarding the nature of justification.  And because of his fairness and his in depth analysis, R.C. Sproul's "Faith Alone" would be an exceptional starting point in which to engage this most important historical and biblical subject regarding how a sinner may stand justified before almighty God.

"The issue of justification by the imputation of Christ's righteousness was deemed significant in the sixteenth century because it was a struggle about understanding, believing, and teaching the first-century gospel.  Now, more than ever, precisely because of the pervasive influence of secular modernity, the church needs a clear understanding of the biblical gospel."
- R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone, Chapter 5, pg 113