Infusion and Imputation: An Introduction

Martin Luther is often credited with the assertion that justification is “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” He may or may not have said those exact words, even when we make allowance for translation into English,[1] but the sentiment was clearly held by many prominent theologians of the Protestant Reformation. Those in the Reformed Protestant camp—which in these articles will generally designate those who hold to the soteriology of the Swiss Reformers (Calvin, Bucer, Beza, et al.), the Three Forms of Unity, and the Westminster Confession of Faith—were more concerned with this matter of justification than any other, with the possible exception of proper forms of worship. They relied upon this issue to define themselves over and against the Roman Catholic Church, which they declared had abandoned the Gospel and thus ceased to be a true Church. According to this criteria, they rationalized their abandonment of fellowship with and obedience to the Roman see.

What are we in the 21st century to think about this divide between Catholics and Protestants?[2] What exactly does each group teach about how we can be made righteous before God, and are the views really as contradictory as theologians tended to proclaim in that most contentious of historical epochs?

The first task in evaluating truth is simply to understand the differing views. Protestants are far more likely to use legal or even monetary terminology when they speak about justification, whereas Catholics speak more pneumatically. Both describe a transaction; neither ignores entirely that which is cherished by the other, but the emphasis is different. Protestants see a judgment seat while Catholics see a pilgrimage. If Protestants speak in prose, Catholics speak in poetry.

Does not the world require both poetry and prose? The Scriptures describe both a journey and a judgment seat. But if these differences are merely stylistic, why then did so many suffer persecution for such differences? In fact, this is about more than wording or emphasis, ambiguity or perspicuity. The issue in question is none other than the eternal fate of human souls.

How we understand salvation matters. As such, it is worth considering at-length the difference between Catholic and Reformed views of justification. There is much ground to cover, so we would best begin with a quick summary. 

A Summary of the Two Views

The Catholic understanding of justification can be summed up as follows: On account only of God’s unmerited favor and love, the Holy Spirit infuses an individual in the sacrament of baptism with both grace and virtue.[3] This grace has the effect of driving out (that is, remitting) sin, whereas the virtues (primarily the chief virtues of faith, hope, and love) have the effect of allowing one to increase in righteousness. This infused grace is also referred to as justifying grace, and the moment of infusion is held to be the moment in which a person is counted just before God.

However, it is also a sanctifying grace, and must be, for sanctification is necessary for eternal life. Counted just before God, the individual increases in sanctification as the grace and virtue infused by the Holy Spirit allow them to put sin to death and perform the works prepared for them by Christ. The infusion is an instantaneous work, but the effect occurs over much time. Perseverance in the faith is not guaranteed, for those who commit mortal sins lose the sanctifying grace of God.[4]

The Reformed Protestant understanding of justification can be summed up as follows: On account only of God’s unmerited favor and love, the Holy Spirit moves to regenerate a person’s spirit.[5] They are then united to Christ through faith, which is the instrument that allows one to enter into that union and receive its benefits. Through this union occurs a double exchange: The sins of the individual are imputed to Christ, who bore them upon the cross, thus paying the penalty of sin and enabling divine forgiveness of the same.[6]

In the other part of the exchange, the righteousness of Christ, who alone fulfilled the Law, is imputed to the individual (even as Adam’s sin is imputed to his descendants), so that they are counted fully righteous before God and declared to be just. The further benefits of union with Christ—sanctification, adoption, and eventual glorification—are then received by the individual. However, sanctification for Protestants is a separate process from justification; it is the term for a believer putting sin to death and doing the works prepared by Christ throughout the course of their earthly life. And for all who are genuinely united to Christ, perseverance in the faith is guaranteed.

The contrast is between infusion and imputation, or if you prefer, justification occurring through sanctification or justification that brings about sanctification. Next time we will consider the Roman Catholic view of infusion in more detail. 

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reformed Road Leads to Rome?"

"Francis Turretin on Justification" by Guy Waters

"Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin" by Ian Hamilton

Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Thomas Schreiner

Free Justification: The Glorification of Christ in the Justification of a Sinner by Steve Fernandez

Justification in Church History, with Michael Horton, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan [ Audio Disc | MP3 Disc | Download ]


[1] Taylor, Justin. “Luther’s Saying: ‘Justification Is the Article by Which the Church Stands and Falls’”, The Gospel Coalition, 31 August 2011, Accessed 19 May 2020.

[2] In these articles, the word Catholic with a capital C refers to Roman Catholicism. The broader meaning of the word will be designated with a lack of capitalization. I will periodically use the adjective Roman to remind readers of the specificity of the capitalized term.

[3] The Roman Catholic Church holds that baptism is the ordinary means by which this grace is infused. However, most Catholics do acknowledge the possibility of extraordinary means through which the same thing may occur, such as when a person does not have time to be baptized before dying.

[4] "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." Catechism of the Catholic Church, IV.1857. 

[5] There is some difference of opinion among Reformed Protestants regarding the ordo salutis, the order in which certain aspects of salvation (here specifically regeneration, union with Christ, and justification) occur, but there is unanimity that justification precedes and is separate from sanctification.

[6] Please note that the Reformed Protestant view of soteriology also includes penal substitutionary atonement, another difference with the Catholic Church, which holds to a satisfaction of honor (as taught by Anselm of Canterbury) rather than a more strictly judicial satisfaction (as taught by John Calvin).