Synod rejects the errors of those:
9. Who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian
(HC 52; BC 37).
The medieval church accepted the premise that God can only declare one righteous if that one is actually, intrinsically, inherently, righteous. According to the medieval and Roman communion after Trent and according to all moralists, whether Anabaptist, Socinian, Arminian, or Federal Vision, God can only recognize what is intrinsically true of us. According to Rome, in order for God to declare a person righteous, one must already be personally, inherently, intrinsically righteous. For Rome, justification is not a declaration that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed, but only recognition of what has been worked within the sinner by grace and cooperation with grace. According to Rome, God can only justify the godly.
To this premise, the medieval church and Roman communion developed a corollary: a distinction between initial and final justification. In both the medieval and modern Roman systems, one is said to be initially justified in baptism. If one survived infancy (infant mortality rates in the middle ages and through the sixteenth century were very high) then one was said to have an “unformed faith” until after the grace of confirmation. Following that sacrament, faith must become “formed,” or made a reality by Spirit-wrought sanctity and cooperation with grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, grace is “needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity” (para. 2001).1 In the medieval and Roman schemes, one can only be finally and fully justified on the basis of inherent, intrinsic, personal sanctity wrought by grace and cooperation with grace. As the Roman catechism says, quoting the Council of Trent: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (para. 1988).
The Roman Catechism says the “grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ and through Baptism’” (para. 1987). This cleansing and communication of Christ’s righteousness in baptism is, in Roman theology, “initial justification.” Remember, according to Rome, since, “the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion” (para. 2010). According to Rome, merit “is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.” This means that strict or condign merit satisfies justice (para. 2006). Because of the “immeasurable inequality” between God and man, “there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man” (para. 2007). The merit of our good works, according to Rome, is attributed “in the first place” to grace and in the second place to our cooperation with grace (para. 2008). The “initial grace” of the forgiveness of sins and justification is unmerited. Consequent to that initial grace, however, and moved “by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” (para. 2010; emphasis added).
At the final judgment, following purgatory in most cases (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1022, 1030-1032); unless one had a plenary indulgence, one could be declared righteous only after one has achieved perfection. Of course, those who die in “a state of mortal sin” go to hell with no hope of redemption (para. 1035). Those who have received grace and who have cooperated sufficiently with that grace are “assured of their eternal salvation” after purgatory (para. 1054). For Rome, one is not finally justified until one is finally sanctified.
Contemporary Roman apologist Dave Armstrong defends the distinction between initial and final justification: “We never deny grace alone as the efficient cause of all good and all salvation. We deny faith alone for anything beyond initial justification because it places faith in isolation without works, contrary to much Scripture.” It is clear from Armstrong’s language and the doctrine of the Roman catechism that the point of the two-stage doctrine of justification is to suspend the final verdict on the Christian and to make it contingent upon our cooperation with grace or what the Roman catechism and the Apostle Paul call “works.” The Roman catechism calls them “good works” and Paul calls the “works of the law” (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10) but they are the same thing.
Essentially, the medieval and Roman system (grace and cooperation with grace or “grace and works”) put the Christian on a legal footing in order to ensure obedience. The theory is that, if we want Christians to be good in this life, we must suspend their final standing before God upon good behavior or else they have no incentive to be good. The theory is that the best incentive to behave is fear of damnation. Who could complain? After all, every Christian had been given his share of divine help and medicine (grace) and now it was up to him to do his part, to do, as some put it, “What lies with himself.” God will give grace to those who do their part, who fulfill their part of the covenant. The hidden premise behind all forms of moralism is the same premise that lay behind the criticism of Paul’s gospel preaching: if we say that we are justified only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for us, received through faith alone, by grace alone, what incentive is there to do good (Rom 5:20; 6:1)? Of course the apostle proceeds to answer that question gloriously in the following verses. There is every incentive for Christians to die to sin and live to Christ. As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, the great incentive is the grace we have been shown in Christ that produces thankful living (HC questions 86–129). Belgic Confession article 24 teaches that only good trees produce good fruit and trees are made good not, first of all, by sanctification but by God’s declaration of righteousness. In contrast to Rome and the Federal Vision, Paul says that we are justified even before we are sanctified or have done anything good. Christ justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5).
Perhaps the most ironic thing about the Roman (and Federal Vision) two-stage doctrine of justification is that it did not work for the medieval church, it has not worked for the post-Tridentine Roman communion, and it will not work for the covenantal moralists to try to append it to an ostensible Protestant theology. At the time of the beginning of the Reformation in the early sixteenth century, no one was satisfied with the moral state of the church. Moral corruption in the church was extensive. An early 16th-century council complained that the Roman church was corrupt in head and members. When Luther traveled to Rome in 1510, his one trip away from what today we think of as Germany, he found corruption on a scale that he could not imagine. He expected to find the holy city, the city of God. Instead he found indulgences for sale to a degree that dwarfed Tetzel’s operation in Germany. The city was rife with prostitution. The principal customers were pilgrims and priests. Most of the pre-Reformation popes were corrupt. Some of them were outright murderers and adulterers. It is no surprise that the Protestants described the papacy as “Antichrist.” They were not alone in that judgment. The medieval theologian William of Ockham (d. 1347) had begun using that language long before the Reformation.
When the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants faced these problems they responded by distinguishing clearly between law and gospel, between justification and sanctification, and between justification and vindication. When contemporary moralists (a small number of whom have already seen the logic of their position and united with the Roman communion) face these issues, they resurrect long-discredited medieval and Roman doctrines. At least one Reformed pastor is known to have preached a sermon in which a version of this two-stage doctrine of justification was propounded. A complaint about that sermon found its way to Synod Calgary in 2004. In the same period an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church faced complaints in the Philadelphia presbytery for teaching the same doctrine. This doctrine has also been promulgated by those associated with the so-called Federal Vision movement.
According to the Reformed understanding of God’s Word, there is only one justification. Romans 5:1 is unequivocal: “Therefore having been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our justification through faith alone is not future. It is not uncertain. It is not a mere possibility contingent upon our cooperation with grace. It is a present certainty. Thus Romans 8:1 says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We are “in Christ Jesus,” united to Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone (Rom 3:28). When Luther used the word “alone” (allein) in his translation of this verse, he was trying to capture the spirit of the phrase, “without the works of the law.”2 It is in this same spirit that the United Reformed Churches, at two different synods (2004 and 2007) have re-affirmed our conviction that we are justified through faith alone on the basis of the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ.
According to Paul and the writer to the Hebrews, the judgment upon sin has already been executed, once for all, upon Christ the Second Adam (Rom 5:18; Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). Our sins were imputed to Christ so that Paul could say that Christ “became sin” for us. We, who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, have “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Point nine addresses a moralism that would have us think that there are two stages of justification. In the some versions it is said that we are justified “already,” in this life, by grace alone, through faith alone, but at the judgment, which is “not yet,” justification shall be partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity. In contrast, the Reformed faith holds that we who are resting, receiving, leaning, and trusting only on Christ and his finished work are fully justified right now. There is no “not yet” aspect to justification. Jesus’ righteousness is perfect. He finished his work (John 19:30) and that finished work is the basis for our perfect justification now and into eternity.
What happens at the judgment is vindication or the announcement of the true state of things. In distinction from justification, vindication is the recognition of the realities accomplished by Christ, which are true of his people, which have been obscured by sin. James 2:18 says, “Show me your faith without any actions, and I will show you my faith by my actions” (NIV). This idea of “showing” one’s faith is exactly what Reformed folk mean by vindication. Luther described this “showing” or vindicating the claim to believe as “justification before men” as distinct from justification before God.3
This is one reason why we described ourselves, in the sixteenth century, as the churches “under the cross.” We were under the cross because we were being persecuted for believing the gospel and for worshiping according to God’s Word alone. We were also “churches under cross” because ours were gospel churches that had a theology of the cross. We did not expect the world to recognize us as Christ’s people, any more than the world recognized Jesus as the Christ. The hope, the certainty, the confidence of the churches under the cross was that, at the judgment, they would be vindicated in Christ.
In Lord’s Day 19, Question 51, our catechism asks, “What comfort is it to you, that Christ ‘shall come to judge the living and the dead’?” Notice that Christ’s return and the judgment are not considered first of all as a time or place in which Christians shall be judged. This is significant. Implicit in every version of the two-stage approach to justification is that there is a final judgment that is parallel to the judgment sustained by Christ. Instead, even though the catechism has not really reached the full exposition of the doctrine of justification, the catechism anticipates the coming questions and answers by casting the return of Christ in terms of “comfort” (tröstet) or the gospel. The good news about Christ’s return is that believers anticipate the return of the very one who has already “offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me….” This is not the say that there shall be no accounting before God, of things done in the body, but it is to say that those who trust Christ do not relate to God on the basis of the covenant of works, but on the basis of the covenant of grace. Christ’s return and the last day are good news for those of whom it has already been said: “Righteous in Christ.”
Every form of the two-stage doctrine of justification assumes either that God will accept our best efforts or some form of congruent merit, whereby God arbitrarily imputes perfection to our best efforts. Both are superfluous. We confess in question 62 that the “righteousness which can stand before the judgment-seat of God, must be perfect throughout and wholly conformable to the divine law” and that none of our works, in this life, Spirit-wrought or not, meet that standard.
Our confession, article 37, is just as clear about the judgment and justification. We confess that all humans will appear before God (Heb. 9:27). We confess that, at the end, the dead shall be raised and the “consciences” of all humans “will be opened” and the “dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil.” To those who are outside of Christ, this is, to put it mildly, bad news. To those, however, who are in Christ, “it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished.” Since we have already been justified at Calvary, our justification “will be openly recognized by all….” Believers will be “crowned with glory and honor.” Those who have suffered so grievously for Christ’s sake in this life “will be acknowledged as the ‘cause of the Son of God.’” The Westminster Standards use virtually identical language. In each case, in the Heidelberg Catechism and in the Belgic Confession, justification is clearly distinguished from “acknowledgment” or vindication.
The Protestants and the Reformed confessions and churches hold that the justification and vindication scheme is Christ’s way of sanctity. It is true that such a path to godliness is counter-intuitive. Of course, the incarnation of God the Son, his life of obedience, death, burial, and resurrection struck his disciples as implausible, too, until Pentecost. In other words, the whole Christian faith is counter-intuitive. This is why the Apostle Paul calls the gospel “foolishness” a stumbling block, and rock of offense (1 Cor. 1:20–25).
Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected the notion that the way to produce sanctity is to suspend final justification on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctification as a form of rationalism. They called it the “theology of glory.”4 To use the language of the seventeenth-century English Reformed writer Walter Marshall (1628–80), the “gospel mystery of sanctification” is that it is by grace alone, through faith alone. The rationalism of moralism always ignores the mystery of salvation through the cross.
There can be no question whether the redeemed must obey their Lord. We who have been “baptized into Christ” have been identified with his death. We who believe are united to him. Therefore, by virtue of that union, we have been buried with him in baptism and raised with him in resurrection to a new life of thankful obedience. By the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit we can and must die to sin and live to Christ (Rom 6:2-12; HC 88-90).5
What is before us, however, is the basis for our Christian life: our acceptance with God. As confessional Reformed Christians let us continue to hide unashamedly behind and trust only in our righteous Savior Jesus Christ. Let us not slide back into the morass of medieval moralism from which we have been delivered. Putting Christians back on a works footing before God do not improve our sanctity. We may not be living the “victorious life,” but nevertheless, let us continue to muddle through the Christian life, dying to sin and living to Christ, sinning and repenting, crying out for grace and mercy, trusting our Savior to guide us safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice, 1997). The Roman catechism is also available online at http://www.vatican.va.
2. The “Joint Federal Vision Statement” released in July 2007, after the actions by the Synod of the URCNA and the General Assembly of the PCA to reject the Federal Vision, teaches “justification through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through works of the law.” The FV writers have made clear that they understand “works of the law” not as the Reformers did, to describe cooperation with grace, but rather as Jewish ceremonies. Further, the statement is clear that when they say “faith alone,” they mean that faith justifies not because it apprehends Christ and his righteousness but because it is a “living, active, and personally loyal faith.” In other words, where the Reformed make Christ and his righteousness the power of faith in the act of justification, the FV continues, like Rome, to make virtue and our sanctity the thing that makes faith efficacious.
3. For more on this, see R. Scott Clark. “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” in The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in Honor of Wayne R. Spear, ed. Anthony T. Selvaggio (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34.
4. See Herman J. Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms. Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
5. For more on this see R. Scott Clark, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian 2 (2006): 3-19; idem, Covenant, Election, and Baptism (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2007).
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA. and Associate Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, California.