Justification: The Reformed Protestant View

Note: Click here to read previous articles in this series.

At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church drew a hard and fast line between their view and that of the Reformed Protestants. We've already explored the Council's view; now we will see more clearly what they were opposing.

In considering the Reformed view of soteriology, it is important to make two things immediately clear:

First, while I have contrasted infusion and imputation, it is not a matter of comparing exact like to like. Catholics teach infused grace and virtue, while the Reformed teach imputed righteousness. It is not a matter of the same kind of righteousness infused or imputed, or the same kind of grace imputed or infused. I choose these two verbs beginning in ‘I’ as the point of contrast because it is a good way to summarize the differing processes by which the two groups believe justification takes place.

Second, there is a difference in how Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants define the terms justification and grace in line with their differing interpretations of the equivalents in the original biblical languages. To put it in what may be an overly simplified manner, Catholics believe that justification is about becoming personally just, whereas Protestants believe it is about being declared just on the basis of Christ’s work. This is why the former group hardly differentiates between justification and sanctification while the other perceives a firm divide between the two.

This leads us into the concept of imputed righteousness. While Reformed soteriology is more often associated with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the doctrine of imputed righteousness (also referred to as alien righteousness) is, in the opinion of this author, its most important distinctive. If the view of “faith alone” was alone, it would move us only halfway from the Catholic Church to the Reformed Church. Imputed righteousness teaches not only a difference in how a person becomes righteous, but also a difference in whose righteousness is in question.

An early statement of the concept of imputation can be found in the Augsburg Confession (1530). Written chiefly by Philipp Melanchthon, it states that

“...men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”[1]

In that quote, we see a clear mention of imputation, but I would submit that the wording is slightly different from what would eventually become the Reformed doctrine of imputed righteousness. The linchpin in this system seems to be the faith of the individual, which is indeed imputed to them by God and counted as righteousness. Later descriptions by Reformed theologians have tended to emphasize that faith is merely the instrument by which Christ’s righteousness is grasped. What do we make of this? In his defense of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon wrote the following in regard to Romans 4:4-5.

“Here he clearly says that faith itself is imputed for righteousness. Faith, therefore, is that thing which God declares to be righteousness, and he adds that it is imputed freely, and says that it could not be imputed freely, if it were due on account of works. Wherefore he excludes also the merit of moral works [not only Jewish ceremonies, but all other good works]. For if justification before God were due to these, faith would not be imputed for righteousness without works… We have believed in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the Law.” [2]

This quote includes two important assumptions of the Reformed view: 1) that justification involves a declaration of righteousness rather than a gradual accumulation of the same, and 2) that the “works” described in the Apostle Paul’s epistles, by which a person cannot be justified, are not only the works of the old Mosaic Law, but any works performed by the individual before or after regeneration.

Furthermore, the view put forward in the Augsburg Confession was not opposed to the later Reformed view, but simply represented an earlier method of speaking. As  Carl Trueman has noted when commenting upon this aspect of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology,

“The important point to note…is the precise role of faith. Faith does not consist in the righteousness that is the basis for the divine declaration that we are justified. Justification is thus a declaration of God based on a righteousness that is, strictly speaking, extrinsic to us but made ours by the way in which faith unites us to Christ. Faith, in short, is the instrumental cause of our justification.”[3]

Therefore, there is no great difference between the early Lutheran view and the later Reformed view in this area. The wording had simply not evolved to the point we see in the Reformed confessions of the second half of the 16th century and the 17th century. The Heidelberg Catechism, published three decades later, uses different language that is closer to the final Reformed view:

"61. Q. Why do you say that you are righteous only by faith?                                                      

  1. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, for only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God. I can receive this righteousness and make it mine my own by faith only.
  2. Q. But why can our good works not be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?
  3. Because the righteousness which can stand before God's judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God, whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”

This catechism clearly states that the righteousness of Christ alone “is my righteousness before God”, and it is received “by faith only”. The word imputation does not appear in the text, but that is the clear intent. Notice the shift from the language of faith being imputed to “satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness” being imputed by faith. This does not mean that the writers of the catechism believed faith was an act of man—far from it. They saw faith as a gift, but did not identify it with the righteousness by which a person is justified. Instead, they pointed to the alien (that is, coming from another source) righteousness of Jesus Christ as the cause of justification.

It is also worth noting the answer to question 62, which states that the only righteousness which can satisfy God’s judgment must be “absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God”. This marks another typical element of Reformed soteriology: Righteousness and sin are not rated along a continuum by means of which God grades on some kind of a curve or sliding scale, but in absolute terms. The righteousness that justifies must be complete and perfect, not only free of the taint of sin but also fulfilling every positive requirement of the Law. This is why Reformed Protestants look to the righteousness of Christ as the cause of justification rather than human righteousness, however much it may be aided by the Spirit of God. Eternal life is not granted on the basis of being good enough, but on the basis of being perfectly good as God is good.

One of the chief doctrinal declarations of the Swiss Reformers was the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, which says the following about imputed righteousness:

“For Christ took upon himself and bore the sins of the world, and satisfied divine justice. Therefore, solely on account of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection God is propitious with respect to our sins and does not impute them to us, but imputes Christ's righteousness to us as our own (II Cor. 5:19 ff.; Rom. 4:25), so that now we are not only cleansed and purged from sins or are holy, but also, granted the righteousness of Christ, and so absolved from sin, death and condemnation, are at last righteous and heirs of eternal life. Properly speaking, therefore, God alone justifies us, and justifies only on account of Christ, not imputing sins to us but imputing his righteousness to us.”[4]

This confession uses the specific language of imputed righteousness. Not only that, but it mentions the double imputation (also called the double exchange) through which, in a person’s union with Christ, sin is imputed in one direction and righteousness in the other. Therefore, according to Reformed Protestants, forgiveness of sins does not take the form of a write off, but is truly removed.

We should also consider the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1571). Largely Reformed in nature, this confession states that, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”[5] It further clarifies,

“Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.”[6]

It has always been the contention of Reformed Protestants that the good works of the individual serve as evidence of faith rather than the substance of it, as if faith meant something closer to faithfulness.[7] While Catholics do not deny that such works provide evidence of faith, they also see them as the basis for maintaining justification—or, if you prefer, the result of the justifying process of sanctification.

The greatest statement of Reformed soteriology in the later Reformation years was likely the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, which had been proposed as a doctrinal confession for the Church of England but was ultimately accepted by the Presbyterians alone.[8] The Westminster Confession, in its explanation of justification, not only explicitly teaches the doctrine of imputed righteousness, but explicitly rejects the Catholic doctrine of infusion.

“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 for 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.”[9]

There is something else very important here. Note how the confession says that faith itself is not imputed, but the righteousness of Christ. This is a clear recognition of the distance traveled from the Augsburg Confession, which had used the former wording. It was this embracing of imputed righteousness as opposed to either infused grace or imputed faith that allowed a 19th century Baptist to say the following:

“Remember, therefore, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee; it is Christ. It is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee; it is Christ. It is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument. It is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith.”[10]

At this point, it would be helpful to consider a related issue that sheds further light on the differnce between Reformed Protestant and Roman Catholic models.

But we'll save that discussion until next time. 

Previous Articles in This Series:

  1. "Infusion and Imputation: An Introduction"
  2. "Justification: The Roman Catholic View"

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 www.amymantravadi.com 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 Sinnerby Steve Fernandez

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


[1] Augsburg Confession, Article IV. http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article4

[2] The Defense of the Augsburg Confession. Article IV. http://bookofconcord.org/defense_4_justification.php#article4

[3] Kolb, Robert and Carl R. Trueman. Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 135.

[4] Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XV. https://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm

[5] Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, XI. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1571-39articles.asp

[6] Ibid, XII.

[7] I choose my words carefully, for two current movements within the broadly evangelical and Reformed world have indeed held faith to be closer to faithfulness: the popularly titled “New Perspective on Paul” and “Federal Vision” movements. By subscribing to this somewhat different definition, they have moved closer to the Catholic position.

[8] On the subject of imputation, this confession speaks as one with the Savoy Declaration and Second London Baptist Confession, which were embraced by many of the prominent Congregationalists.

[9] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XI, I. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/westminster-confession-faith/

[10] Spurgeon, Charles H. “Morning – June 28” in The Devotional Classics of C.H. Spurgeon: Morning & Evening I & II, The Fifty Greatest Christian Classics, Volume I (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1990?).

Additonal Notes:

All scripture quotations are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

The quotations in these articles often include bolded and italicized highlights. These have been selected for emphasis by the author of these articles and not those of the original quotes. Words that are only italicized and not in bold were emphasized by the original author(s).