Results tagged “Imputation” from Reformation21 Blog

Arminian vs Reformed on Justification

WCF 11.1 ... nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness ...

Part 1: Justification by Precision Alone?
Part 2: Act and Habit of Faith
Part 3: Justification is an act that cannot be revoked
Part 4: Arminian vs. Reformed on justification (see below)


Recent scholarship on Arminius has pointed out that he was a theologian of grace. Of course, I am yet to read of a Christian theologian who would not wish to be described that way. Some scholars have also tried to narrow the gap between Arminius and the Reformed tradition, with some suggesting that Arminius was correct to view himself as Reformed. 

Historically speaking, according to the judgment of many Reformed divines, Arminius, and his Remonstrant successors, deviated from the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone in a significant way. Arminius thought his difference was only minor.

In fact, as in other doctrines, Reformed theologians argued that Arminius and his successors seemed to hold to a view that is more Socinian and Roman Catholic than Reformed. This was a recurring polemic from the Reformed against the Arminians, who believed that Arminian theology had certain nominalistic tendencies and veered towards Socinianism on several important doctrines, especially on the matter of justification.

Franciscus Gomarus, the famous opponent of Arminius, said that it was "not the doctrine of predestination but that of justification" which was the "cardinal point on which Arminius deviated from Reformed doctrine." Fascinating. I do not think Gomarus fought with Arminius over this doctrine because of irrelevant differences. True, Arminius claimed to agree with Calvin on justification in book 3 of the Institutes, but Arminius also claimed to agree with the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession based on what, according to Richard Muller, can at best be described as a highly defensive and tendentious reading of those documents. 

The usually irenic Herman Witsius also drew attention to this deviation by Arminius: "Arminius, by his subtlety, frames vain empty quibbles, when he contends that the righteousness of Christ cannot be imputed to us for righteousness..." He adds: "It is well known that the reformed churches condemned Arminius and his followers, for saying that faith comes to be considered in the matter of justification as a work or act of ours." 

Besides Witsius, we could add the critiques of De Moor, Vitringa, Lubbertus, Voetius, Burgess (see The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated from the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians...), Hoornbeek, Featley, Eyre, Buchanan, Roberts, Walker and many others. 

But what is this unorthodox view?

Arminianism Explained

Arminius distinguishes between legal theology and evangelical theology. Regarding, the latter, as sinners, because of the gracious estimation of God, faith is our righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is not imputed to believers, according to Arminius. He did not seem to believe Christ's righteousness could be imputed. 

Arminius made use of a concept, known as acceptilatio. Imperfect faith is accepted (by God's gracious estimation) as righteousness. Or, to put it another way, the human act of faith is by grace counted as evangelical righteousness, as if it were the complete fulfillment of the whole law. This genuine human act comes forth from the ability to choose (liberum arbitrium). God has a "new law" in the evangelical covenant, whereby faith answers to the demands of the covenant.

Arminius clearly struggled in coming to a settled view. Yet, as Aza Goudriaan says in his excellent essay on this topic, "While it is difficult to pin Arminius down on one particular view, it is obvious that he suggested in certain texts a justification because of the act of faith" (Scholasticism Reformed, 163; cf. McCall and Stanglin, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, 166-169).*

What is the problem? Because the act of faith constitutes righteousness, the manner in which a sinner is justified is not because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through the instrument of faith, but because of the act of believing which answers to the demands of the evangelical covenant. 

If you read Petrus Bertius (an Arminian) you might come to the conclusion that the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas, as noted above, the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps. Based on what I have said above, for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., act of faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.

In other words, technically we can stand before the tribunal of God with as much assurance of our righteousness as Christ can before the Father. Not because God accepts imperfection, but because God demands perfection from all who would enter life, and we possess a perfect righteousness, by imputation. This is why justification cannot be revoked (i.e., we cannot lose our salvation). Justification by faith (in the Reformed schema) has important implications for our doctrine of perseverance.

The act of faith in both the Papist and Arminian schemes seem to reveal similarity between the two positions. But for the Papists, faith is only the beginning of justification, whereas for someone like Bertius, faith is the perfect righteousness of the law. The act of faith answers to the demands of the gracious covenant. (Here Arminians and Reformed affirmed faith as a condition, but understood this condition in different senses). 

Sibrandus Lubbertus, a Reformed opponent of Bertius and the Arminians, makes the following point in terms of connecting Arminian views with Socinianism:

"For although the Papists teach that we are justified by faith taken in the literal sense, yet they do not teach that faith is our whole righteousness: they just teach that faith is the beginning of our justification...Servetus, however, and Socinus teach that faith is our whole righteousness, as has been shown before, and they reject [Christ's] merit. So because you [i.e., Arminians] say that we are justified by faith, taken in the literal sense, and in contrast deny, against the Papists, that faith is only the beginning of our justification, and [because you] add from Servetus and Socinus that it is the perfect fulfillment of the law, that is, it is the whole and perfect righteousness by which we are justified before God; because you finally deny against the Papists the merit of faith, and assert, with Servetus and Socinus, that it justifies because of God's valuation, [therefore] everybody sees that you come closer to Servetus and Socinus than to the Papists and for that reason it can be more correctly said that you are disciples of Servetus and Socinus than those of the Papists" (Goudriaan, Scholasticism Reformed, 172). 

In Socinus's view, faith itself is graciously considered righteousness by God. Christ's active and "passive" obedience is not imputed to the believer. So, as many Reformed theologians pointed out, there are similarities between Arminius and Socinus on justification by faith. 

Daniel Featley, at the Westminster Assembly, highlights the errors of the Papists, Arminians, and Socinians, and mentions Socinus immediately after Arminius: 

2. By the papists: if Christ's righteousness, then either whole or part. If the whole, then one hath all, another none. Or then everyone as righteous as Christ. ... 3. By Arminius: if by the act of faith, then not by the Imputed righteousness of Christ. Socinus neither active nor passive...

This, in part, explains the words quoted above from WCF 11.1, "... nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness ..." The Assembly seems clearly to have in view the views of the Arminians.


William Perkins highlights the importance of the Reformed view on imputation: "For as his righteousness is made ours, so are his merits depending thereon: but his righteousness is made ours by imputation ... Hence arises another point, namely, that as Christ's righteousness is made ours really [secundum veritatem] by imputation to make us righteous: so we by the merit of his righteousness imputed to merit and deserve life everlasting. And this is our doctrine."

Indeed. This is our (i.e., Reformed) doctrine. Justification by faith alone: whereby the gift of faith is the instrument that receives, through imputation, the merits of Christ.

But, make no mistake, the Papists and Arminians were zealous to say their view revealed the grace of God. Arminius also felt that his view did most justice to the biblical data (Rom. 4:5). Yet when you bridge the act of faith in justification according to the Remonstrant scheme with their Molinism, you'll find that one doctrine seems to affect another. And there is a type of synergism in Remonstrant theology that isn't found among the Reformed. As Goudriaan says, "it could be argued that Arminian positions on both predestination and justification reveal a common focus: human activity is formative in both Arminian doctrines" (SR, 178; cf. McCall & Stanglin,168). 

That said, I'm glad that we're not justified by believing in the precise doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Arminian view is not as bad, in my view, as the Papist error. Remember, too, that Rome hasn't officially revoked her anathema towards those who believe in justification through faith alone. But, where do we, in the Reformed world, begin to anathematize others for a view of justification that is in error? Now that's an interesting question! 


* As an aside, Stanglin and McCall are very fine scholars. I would be interested to see what other conclusions they might reach with a bit more historical context and theological analysis. I think Gomarus, who studied Arminius's works carefully on this topic, shows contrasting approaches by Arminius to his understanding of justification, thus disproving a fully consistent Arminius! The Lubbertus/Bertius debate is also crucial. Bertius was too close to Arminius to be ignored in a historical reading of Arminius on justification. That was one of the key strengths of Goudriaan's essay. One would need to disprove a lot of historical and primary source work by Goudriaan to establish the case that the Remonstrant view of justification was very close to the Reformed view. Indeed, to their credit, McCall and Stanglin admit it was different (Rom. 4:5 being a key text). 

John Fesko has a very good discussion of this debate in his book on the Westminster Assembly. Unfortunately, I only saw it just, but we seem to be in agreement on the Reformed vs. Arminian views of justification.

Can Humans Merit Before God? (2 of 2)

Part 1 here.

Westminster Seminary California Professor, David VanDrunen, critiques Norman Shepherd for rejecting Adamic merit:

"It is not difficult to see how such a view, if taken seriously, makes belief in Christ's active, imputed obedience impossible. If image bearers do not merit anything before God, then the true image bearer, Christ, did not merit anything before God, and his perfect obedience can hardly be reckoned ours as the basis for our justification" (CJPM, 51).

But Professor VanDrunen does not define "merit". He seems to make the argument that because Christ, the true image bearer, merited before God, Adam, as an image-bearer, also could have merited before God. In his quote there appears to be a one-to-one correlation between the merit of Christ and the merit of Adam. This is questionable ground, in my view. He needs to define merit, otherwise we are left guessing, at best, what he means. Is he departing from what the Reformed scholastics meant by merit or agreeing with them?

There are important Christological reasons why Christ could merit, but Adam could not. If our understanding of what constitutes a meritorious work follows the Reformed scholastics, then the answer is quite simple: the dignity of Christ's person (as theanthropos) explains why he, and he alone, could merit before God. 

In this post I want to explain how we may speak of God being gracious to Christ while at the same time arguing for the merit of Christ. 

Christ's Grace
The Father upheld his Son, his servant, by bestowing upon him the Holy Spirit to enable him to perform the work given to him (Isa. 42:1), which flows from the terms of the eternal covenant of redemption. 

In Luke's gospel we read of Christ: "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor (charis) of God was upon him... And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor (chariti) with God and man" (Lk. 2:40, 52).

Luke speaks of Jesus increasing in chariti (from the Greek, charis). Does this mean "favor" as many English translations suggest? Or should we translate the Greek as "grace"? A number of translations render "charis" in Luke 2:40 as grace (e.g., NIV, NASB, KJV). We do not need to get too picky about which word is used, provided we understand that divine grace is not merely God's goodness to the elect in the era of redemptive history. Nor is grace simply offered to those who have sinned. 

Divine grace is a perfection of God's nature, and thus a characteristic of how he relates to finite creatures, even apart from sin. In the garden, the grace of God was upon Adam; in the "wilderness," the grace of God is upon his Son, the second Adam. God's graciousness may be summarized simply as what he is in and of himself. As Psalm 145:8-9 makes clear: "The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made." 

God may be "gracious" to Jesus - not as though he sinned - because God is gracious to his creatures. How much more to his beloved Son? God showed favor to his favorite Son. Christ's human nature was sanctified and filled with graces (Gal. 5:22). "For let the natural faculties of the soul, mind, will, and affections, be created pure, innocent, undefiled, - as they cannot be otherwise created immediately by God, - yet there is not enough to enable any rational creature to live to God; much less was it all that was in Jesus Christ" (John Owen, Works, 3:168-69). Thus Bavinck: "If humans in general cannot have communion with God except by the Holy Spirit, then this applies even more powerfully to Christ's human nature" (RD, 3:292).

Christ's Merit

How, then, is it possible that Christ could merit salvation for the elect if he was sustained by the Father through the Spirit (i.e., received grace)? 

First, concerning Maccovius's point that the work must proceed from one's own powers for it to be properly meritorious, we may say that the Sprit is still the Spirit of the Son. So while the Son voluntarily submitted to the will of the Father, to be upheld by the Father, the divine nature which operated upon Christ mediately through the Spirit was still, ontologically speaking, Christ's Spirit (i.e., "own powers"). Hence, Christ's work (obedience) proceeds from his own power, even if it was mediated through the Spirit. 
Second, Anselm argued that Christ, as a rational being, owed obedience to God.  But to make satisfaction on behalf of sinners, Christ had to go beyond a life of obedience - he had to die. As the God-man, Christ's death was therefore supererogatory - a death above God's requirement of him.  His death is superabundant to make satisfaction for sins.  Gataker and Vines, for example, used Anselm's argument to reject the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.  Christ's death was supererogatory and therefore his death merited eternal life. In other words, Gataker and Vines argued Anselm's point that Christ's obedience is required, but his death is not required; ergo: only the merits of Christ's death are imputed to believers, that is, his "passive" obedience.

Goodwin resisted this line of argument. Goodwin argued that the Assembly must grant the assumption of the Anselmians that Christ, in his humanity, was obliged to fulfill the law. However, for Goodwin, Christ, as the God-man, had a unique dignity and so was not obliged to keep the law in the same way a creature is, especially since his law-keeping was voluntary. Daniel Featley also held that Christ's hypostatical union meant that he was freed from the obligation of the law.  True, Christ had a human nature, but he was not a human person.  The dignity of the person, which in the case of Christ is infinite, alters his relationship to the law. As a result, Goodwin and Featley argued that since Christ was not obliged to obey the law but did so anyway, he must have been doing so on behalf of his people.  

Goodwin and Featley's position may be summed up that "whatsoever is debitum is not meritum." That is to say, Christ's obedience to the law was not an ontological necessity as the "Anselmians" (i.e. those who rejected the IAOC) maintained, but rather a functional necessity by virtue of Christ's pretemporal agreement with the Father to fulfill the law on behalf of sinners. 

Opus indebitum ["a non-indebted work"] is maintained this way for Christ. In other words, Adam did not come freely, hence his obedience was "indebted," unlike Christ's, which was not indebted. Therefore the parallel breaks down at that point concerning merit between the two Adams. 

As William Perkins argues, protecting the uniqueness of Christ as the one who alone can merit has certain implications for imputation:

"And the true merit whereby we looked to attain the favor of God, and life everlasting, is to be found in the person of Christ alone: who is the storehouse of all our merits: whose prerogative it is, to be the person alone in whom God is well pleased. God's favor is of infinite dignity, and no creature is able to do a work that may countervail the favor of God, save Christ alone: who by reason of the dignity of his person, being not a mere man but God-man, or Man-God, he can do such works as are of endless dignity ever way answerable to the favor of God: and therefore sufficient to merit the same for us. And though a merit or meritorious work agree only to the person of Christ, yet is it made our by imputation. For as his righteousness is made ours, so are his merits depending thereon: but his righteousness is made ours by imputation.... Hence arises another point, namely, that as Christ's righteousness is made ours really [secundum veritatem] by imputation to make us righteous: so we by the merit of his righteousness imputed to merit and deserve life everlasting. And this is our doctrine."

In Summary

Merit must be something that is not owed: Christ freely came to obey in our place, hence it was not owed. Adam did not freely make the decision to place himself under the law of the covenant of works.

Merit should proceed from the powers of the one who deserves it: Christ relied upon his Father's grace - the grace of the Holy Spirit - but, ontologically speaking, the will and essence of God are one, and therefore Christ's merit proceeded "from the powers of the one who deserves it." Adam was upheld by the Spirit in the Garden, but it was not his Spirit.

The rewards given to Christ for his meritorious obedience were of use to him because of the glory that would come to his name. God is jealous for his glory, so when Christ merited glory there was no threat of God sharing his glory. 

Finally, the rewards given to Christ are proportionate to the work he performed. Adam's reward would have been far greater, assuming we say that Adam would have been granted heavenly life, than what he "worked for".

Professor VanDrunen and I both want to argue for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. I do not think, however, that holding to Adamic merit is the way to go about such a noble endeavor. My concern is the dignity of Christ, who alone can merit.

Updated. No tag line anymore.

Results tagged “Imputation” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 11.1

i.Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not or anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
The Westminster Confession's treatment of justification brilliantly sets forth the teaching of Scripture on this most pivotal doctrine. Moreover, this definition is clearly rooted in the Calvinistic divines' conflict with both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. As such, paragraph one not only sets forth clearly the nature of justification but it also combats prominent errors associated with this doctrinal heading. Justification is placed after effectual calingl in the ordo salutis: the call is logically prior because it is the source of faith, and faith is the instrument of the Christian's justification. Justification is the free gift of God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.

It is notable that this paragraph emphasizes the dual nature of what justification accomplishes.  Negatively, it removes the guilt of the believers' sin: "pardoning their sins". Positively, justification bestows a righteous standing with God: "accounting and accepting their persons as righteous." This two-part construction is essential to the Reformed doctrine of justification. Like Joshua the high priest in the vision of Zechariah 3:1-5, Esther in her approach to the Persian king in Esther 5:1, and the guest without a garment in Jesus' parable of the wedding feast (Mt. 22:12), we must not only be forgiven but positively clothed in righteousness in order to be justified before God. 

This construction has raised a question about the necessity of teaching Christ's "active obedience."  The distinction is made between Christ's obedience to the Father in in dying for our sins (passive obedience) and Christ's obedience to the Father in fulfilling all righteousness by his perfect law-keeping life (active obedience). While this language is not found in the Confession, the ideas are clearly important to the divines' teaching. In justifying sinners, Jesus both died for our forgiveness and fulfilled in his life the law-keeping righteousness that God's justice requires.

How, then, does Christ's righteousness become ours, so that we as sinners are justified?  Paragraph one answers by clearly distinguishing between the infusing of righteousness and the imputation of righteousness. The Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that sinners are made righteousness as God's grace changes them. Only when God's grace has perfectly made us righteous by infusion - a change of our nature - can we be justified. The Westminster Divines insisted instead that sinners are declared righteous by the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  This is a change of status apart from a change in our nature. As Paul put it, God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5): while our nature is still sinful, our status before God is changed by the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness.

Imputation is an accounting term, involving the granting of credit. Just as our sins were transferred to Jesus by imputation - Jesus did not become a sinner by infusion, but he bore our sins that were reckoned to him - his righteousness is imputed to sinners through faith. This doctrine has been newly brought into controversy by N. T. Wright and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul."  Wright has argued that righteousness is not a substance that can be passed across a court room. He errs badly in this, however, since status is often conveyed by declaration. Children are adopted when the status of son is passed to them or declared of them.  In Christian justification, sinners are declared righteous by the reckoning of Christ's perfect righteousness to their record. This was Paul's meaning in Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness."  The verb for counted is logizomai, which means a legal reckoning. 

Thank God for the imputation of Christ's righteousness!  As J. Gresham Machen said on his deathbed about Christ's active obedience, there truly would be "no hope without it."