Justification By Faith Alone

John D. Koch, Jr.
Tuesday, July 5th 2016
Jul/Aug 2016

On October 15, 1555, bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned as Protestant heretics under the reign of Queen Mary. Shortly before they were murdered, Latimer said, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Although this candle has burned for over 450 years, an increasing number of people ”Protestants and Roman Catholics alike ”are asking whether or not that flame has been burning in vain.

In John 17:20-21, in the middle of what is known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer,” he says:

It does not take great familiarity with Christian history or practice to know that this prayer seems to have gone unanswered. The world is awash with different churches, confessions, and denominations that disagree with one another on many and varied points of theology, most notably between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. In the Western world at least, where Christian churches continue to fracture, this division is increasingly difficult for many people to maintain in good conscience. If there is not a substantive disagreement that threatens the very nature and proclamation of the gospel itself, then this division is not merely unwarranted but wrong. Historically, the point of division between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism has been placed at the different interpretations of the doctrine of justification by faith, but is this difference important enough to maintain the separation today? For centuries, the answer has been a resounding yes, but the twenty-first century has approached it differently.

On October 31, 1999, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church met in Augsburg to sign the “Official Common Statement” on the “Joint Declaration of Justification,” which under section 3 titled “The Common Understanding of Justification” states:

Despite significant objections to this statement (for example, 243 German university theology teachers and professors within various Lutheran and Protestant church bodies), many churches and theologians welcomed the developments as a step toward the visible unity that has eluded the Christian church for centuries.

In 2003, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson wrote an open letter saying that “the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation ‘consigned to oblivion’ the mutual condemnations of the Reformation era.” Despite such pronouncements, the debate remains very much unsettled.

During my junior year in college, one of my professors (a winsome and pious Roman Catholic) introduced us to the Joint Declaration and asked what, if anything, stood between full reunification of the churches now that the significant issue of the Reformation had been resolved. At that point I had no adequate answer. This question has preoccupied my adult life in no small way. Theologically ”as well as personally, since many of my dearest friends are Roman Catholics ”I count John Paul II and Benedict XVI among two of my most revered theologians.

For many years, my standard response to the (oft-posed) question, “Why aren’t you a Catholic?” was always that I wasn’t comfortable with the “fact” that the pope had a solid gold bathroom. The sophistication and thoughtfulness of this response belied my genuine ignorance about Catholic doctrine and practice, because all I knew is that, really, they thought that the pope could fly. Essentially, I viewed Catholicism ”not unlike my own faith at the time ”more as a social phenomenon than a theological category. I basked in this ignorance until the summer of 2001 when I was given a copy of First Things, and my life was turned upside down. In April 2002, I’ll never forget reading “How I Became the Catholic I Was,” by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and being genuinely struck by the fact that many of my objections to Catholicism were at best misunderstandings and at worst completely wrong.

My introduction to First Things coincided with the rise of the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” movement, and slowly, my objections to Roman Catholicism began to come down. The Roman Catholics I had met all seemed more serious than many Protestants ”the way they talked about the tradition and the magisterium was inspiring and beautiful. I was on my way either to swallowing the whole loaf and going Roman, or at least coming as close as possible by joining the more-socially-acceptable but consigned-to-limbo Anglo-Catholic fold. Then one glorious and life-changing day, I heard the doctrine of justification explained in historic law and gospel form; my heart was strangely warmed, and I knew why I could never be the Catholic I almost was.

With the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600), I will not “deny her [the Roman] the name of church.” I’m not arguing that Roman Catholics cannot be Christians, but that she has erred on a crucial point of the gospel. Nevertheless, there is one small word ”alone. When attached to the Protestant understanding of justification by faith, this word erects an impassible barrier between those who may boast in Christ for their salvation and those who boast in Christ alone. If this seems like too fine a point upon which to maintain our division with Rome, keep reading!

During the theological arguments of the sixteenth century, both Rome and her critics saw their positions as incompatible with one another; they saw the other as preaching a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). This disagreement led to each group leveling condemnations against each other that have remained points of contention for centuries. This is why one of the Joint Declaration arguments picked up by Braaten and Jenson is that this agreement has “‘consigned to oblivion’ the mutual condemnations of the Reformation era,” specifically concerning the disagreement surrounding the doctrine of justification by faith. But the question of why remains. What has changed? If there has been no official change in the Roman teaching on justification, then the disagreement remains, even if the condemnations are removed.

Of the different councils and decrees of the sixteenth century, none is more central to the continued division than the Council of Trent, which explained practically every doctrine the Protestants argued. In no small way, Protestant identity solidified and galvanized around the statements of Trent; through the clear articulation of Roman Catholic doctrine, the real issues emerged. With the clarifications came the requisite anathemas ”or curses ”from the Roman Church, chief among which are Canons 11 and 12:

Before anyone is tempted to think that the aforementioned “anyone” referred only to more hot-headed Calvinists or Lutherans, let us compare this canon to Article 11 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which are a collection of theological statements derived from the theology of the Reformers and instituted by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and which all Anglican clergy must affirm as part of the “Declaration of Assent.” Article 11 (“Of the Justification of Man”) states:

What we see here is that the response of the Roman Catholic Church to Protestant teaching, and vice versa, was neither ill-informed nor misguided but both comprehensive and sophisticated. To give both sides a charitable read, both endeavored to be faithful to the Scriptures and the traditions of the church, and were working out of a concern for the spiritual well-being of their people. The difficulty was that they were (and are) working with incompatible visions of the capacities of the human person and, in particular, the nature of Christian freedom.

For Protestants, if the gospel is not received solely by faith in the unmerited and unmediated favor of God to sinners, and is somehow considered to be either formed or legitimated by the existence of human love, then Christ becomes a tool, a means to the real end ”love ”rather than love being the fruit of having had one’s own pretentions come to an end. The Apostle Paul is instructive here. In Galatians 2:20-21, he writes:

In other words, it is faith alone in Christ that saves, not because it inspires, cajoles, instructs, or infuses virtue, but because it raises dead sinners to life in Christ. The fact that living people perform “works of love” is certainly the fruit of a living faith, but the root is Christ alone, and preaching salvation by faith in him alone is the only means we have for resurrecting the dead.

At this point, the objection routinely comes, “What about James?” Ah, yes, James. In 2:14-17, we read:

In many ways, this passage serves to undermine two essential aspects of Reformation Christianity: not only does it bring into question the veracity of “faith without works,” but because of its seeming contradiction to Paul, it shakes the foundation of the authority of Scripture. Perhaps we do need a pope to help arbitrate. The history of interpretations on this particular issue is complex and rich, but suffice it to say there are still many people who are unable to fully articulate how one can have confidence in justification by faith alone, because of the echo from James that “faith without works is dead.”

In his book Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (IVP, 1988), Gerhard Forde wrote on this very issue:

Forde exposes the fundamental distinction between these two conceptions of justification, which explains why so many of the arguments have flown past each other for so long ”we are talking about mutually exclusive views of the nature of Christian existence. One vision for the human person sees the problem thus: the human is too free, too prone to excesses of liberty; therefore, the gospel must have strings attached for fear of the liberty being abused. There is another vision (shared by Luther, Cranmer, and Calvin) that sees the problem with the human person as precisely the opposite: people are not too free; they are slaves. People are bound by their sin, blinded by their desires, and enslaved by the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).

This was the insight for the Apostle Paul: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). This yoke of slavery, as we’ve seen, is to reintroduce a measure of insecurity into the otherwise free gift of God, because it makes the certainty of salvation dependent on something other than faith in Christ and his atoning work for sinners. This faith is not opposed to love, but rather is the root from which love grows, and as such must remain distinct in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Martin Luther saw this need early and clearly, because it is at this point where he staked his position against the Roman Catholics. He saw that love itself (love as the summary of the law, as shown in Matt. 22:31-40) is the law and therefore not opposed to the gospel but distinct from it. In his commentary on Galatians, he writes:

In other words, the response to the gospel (that is, works of love) can never be confused with the message of the gospel itself ”the good news of God’s forgiveness of sins in Christ. When these are conflated, the clarity of the law and the gratuity of the gospel are threatened, and the power of both is diminished. The demand of the law cannot be elevated to its highest pitch, and the promise of the gospel cannot be understood without a litany of caveats.

I am thankful that the violent polemics between our two churches have subsided, and I pray with Jesus that “they may all be one” to this day; but I think our unity is more likely to be found in the direction hoped for by Richard Hooker: “Let them [the Roman Catholics] strip their church till they have no polluted rag but this one about her: ‘By Christ alone, without works, we cannot be saved,’ because then we will ‘all be one.'”<sup>3</sup> Our unity will never be found in whatever degree the church exhibits the “works of love” in the world, because our hope rests on the one “work of love” by which a lost and sinful world is reconciled to God, and by that one work the candle of the gospel once lit will never be extinguished. Thanks be to God!

The Rev. John D. “Jady” Koch, Jr., a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Humboldt University in Berlin, is the curate at Christ Church Anglican in Vienna, Austria. He is also a founding board member of Mockingbird Ministries (


To impute is to ascribe or credit a quality or characteristic to a person or thing (Rom. 4:3; 5:12-19; 2 Cor. 5:19-21).

Scripture teaches three imputations: (1) God imputes Adam’s guilt to all humanity; (2) God imputes humanity’s guilt to Christ; (3) by faith in Christ, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. Lutheran and Reformed theologians distinguish imputation from infusion. Lutheran and Reformed theologians teach that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to sinners who trust in Christ for salvation. God considers Christians as righteous by faith in Christ because God credits Christ’s actual righteousness (perfect obedience) to their account. Infusion is different. For God to infuse a person or object with something implies that God thereby changes a quality or characteristic within that person or object. Imputation doesn’t change the quality or characteristic of the thing or person; it changes its legal status.

“Or How I Could Never Be the Roman Catholic I Almost Was” “

1 Lutheran World Federation, "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,"

2 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999).
3 Richard Hooker, "Learned Discourse on Justification."

Tuesday, July 5th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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