Justification (Part 1 of 3):
The language and imagery of the law courts pervades the Greek and Hebrew scriptures. The language of judgment, indictment, witness, verdict, condemn-nation, and justification (i.e. vindication or acquittal) appears in a literal sense, in the accounts of the trials of Jesus, Stephen, Peter, and Paul, but even more in a figurative sense in the psalms (with their frequent appeals for vindication) and the prophets (notably Isaiah 40-55), and in the gospel of John. It’s not strange that such forensic language (from the Latin word “forensis”, “in open court”) should figure so prominently in the Bible; for the Creator of the world is also its Judge, whose judgments uphold the right order of the creation against the wrong, to its redemption and final consummation.
Such forensic language also figures prominently in the epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Philippians, where Paul sets forth his distinctive teaching on justification, how God as righteous Judge rules in favor of sinners, and declares them righteous or just, not on account of their obedience to the law (the righteousness of the law), but on account of the atoning death of Jesus Christ, in which they have put their trust (the righteousness of faith). Though the Gospel of John uses somewhat different language, the same doctrine is implicit there also: “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (5:24). This doctrine of “justification by faith” (often known as forensic justification), was rediscovered in the early 16th century and became one of the marks of a movement for reform in large parts of the western catholic church. The Church of England committed itself to this teaching in the Thirty-Nine Articles: “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” (Article X).
In the 16th century the doctrine was controversial, and in our time is controversial merely for being controversial. Anglicans who value the catholic tradition are uncomfortable with a doctrine that seems to mark a break with that tradition. Those who look for an Anglican via media between Protestantism and Catholicism draw back from a doctrine that has been divisive. In response, one might note that it was divisive in the 1st century too, as Paul’s letters testify. Moreover, its recovery in the 16th century was made by western Catholics such as Martin Luther, a devout Augustinian monk; and it was espoused by catholic Christians deeply versed in the ancient catholic Scriptures, Creeds, and Church Fathers. Moreover, the doctrine draws deeply from the ancient catholic (and Augustinian) doctrines of sin, of grace, and of the person of Christ. If there is a division here, it’s division or bifurcation within the catholic tradition, not a departure from it. Certainly, those Anglicans like Thomas Cranmer or Richard Hooker who espoused forensic justification found it no obstacle to reverence for the catholic tradition both ancient and medieval. Their example suggests that it is not necessary for us to reject or water down the reformational heritage of Anglicanism in order to live reverently within the catholic tradition. The real problem in our time is often the neglect of the classical Anglican teaching in seminaries for a century or more, with the result that Anglicans and Episcopalians look to non-Anglican traditions (protestant or papalist) for theological perspective.
There is another objection of greater importance, and this is the charge that forensic justification is disconnected from moral renewal, as if the ethical integrity of Christians had no relevance to salvation. It is easy to see how the criticism arises: if we are justified by faith alone apart from works, what motivation can there be for good works? It is not unlikely that some have drawn the conclusion that good works are indeed irrelevant, or at least separate from salvation, but it was a charge that the Reformers addressed head on, and which they refuted with robust arguments to which we turn next.
Justification (Part 2 of 3):
Throughout the Middle Ages, the church’s teaching about justification was framed by Augustine’s anti-Pelagian teaching on sin and grace. Because all human beings inherit by birth the defilement and corruption of sin, it is only by the grace of God that they may find deliverance from sin’s guilt and power; and for the sake of Jesus Christ and his merits, this grace is infused in sinners to make them just and holy, remitting their sins, and bearing fruit in good works, which in turn merit an increase of grace. Thus, justification is not an act (of being declared righteous) but an incremental process (of being made righteous). The first step up the ladder, it was widely held, was to do quod in se est, ‘what is in you’, a certain minimal act of faith, which God would then reward with an increase of grace. Yet there was also a “snakes and ladders” aspect to this process. If grace may be increased by good works, it may also be decreased by venial sin, or even lost (by mortal sin), and could be recovered only through the sacrament of penance, and works of satisfaction (reparation for sin). The faithful could do these works not only for themselves, but also for others, and not only for the living, but also for souls in purgatory (though not in hell).
Though framed in the terms of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian teaching on sin and grace, in the late Middle Ages this teaching on justification led to a system where grace could be quantified, monetized, and exploited for the sake of institutional fundraising. Pelagian works righteousness found its way back into an ostensibly Augustinian system. To the unscrupulous, it was a system to be manipulated, and to the sincere, it offered little peace of conscience. For how do you know you have done the necessary minimum of quod in se est?
A German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther was outspoken in his criticism of the abuses of the system by papal fundraisers, but his critique of institutional malpractice led him further, into a doctrinal insight, based on his reading of Paul, that sinners are justified on account of Christ alone by faith alone. Though the medieval conception acknowledged the merits of Christ as the ultimate cause of God’s grace, justification itself was narrowly defined as an issue between God and the individual soul in abstraction from the saving work of Christ. Luther restored the person and work of Christ to the center of justification, as the mediator of God and men; “who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” (Romans 4:25). It is our participation in the righteousness of Christ that is the key to understanding the forensic doctrine of justification. Because of our bondage to intrinsic sin, we are dependent on an extrinsic or alien righteousness for our justification. We cannot attain righteousness through any work or merit of our own, but can only receive it from Christ through faith alone.
If we are justified by faith alone, what then of works? What of the ethical aspect of the Christian life? They are not superfluous: “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” (Article X). We are justified by faith alone, apart from works; but the faith which justifies is fruitful in good works; and apart from good works it is a dead faith, and does not justify. So, both faith and works play a necessary role in salvation, but not in the same way.
That’s a fine distinction, and a sharp one; but it is not a separation. The doing of good works is a necessity. In the thought of Melanchthon, Calvin, and Hooker, who take up and refine the insights of Luther, the extrinsic grace of justification has its counterpart in the inherent grace of sanctification. Justification is perfect, imputed, and extrinsic; sanctification is imperfect (and thus incremental), infused, and inherent. In 20th-century terms, it is the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of our salvation (cf. e.g. Colossians 3:1ff). What has been already accomplished for us in Christ, perfectly and extrinsically, the righteousness imputed to us through faith, must yet be accomplished in us by his Spirit, in the infusion of sanctifying grace, incrementally, imperfectly, and inherently. It is this distinction without separation that points us to the Christological basis of the doctrine, to which we turn next.
Justification (Part 3 of 3):
Though Luther’s name is indelibly associated with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, his insights were refined by others, such as Melanchthon and Calvin, and in England, by Richard Hooker. At the heart of the reformation consensus that emerged was the distinction of justifying and sanctifying grace; the one outside us (extrinsic or alien), the other within us (inherent or proper); the one perfect (an act), the other imperfect (a dynamic process); the one imputed, the other infused; the one received by faith alone, the other cultivated in good works. Sharp as the distinction of the two modes of grace was, it a distinction without separation: for there is no justifying faith that is not fruitful in sanctifying works. Paradoxically, the Christian is thus at one and the same time both entirely righteous, and yet still a sinner (simul justus et peccator) in incremental progress to holiness; at once someone who has already died and risen with Christ, yet who is also engaged in a continual dying to sin and rising again to righteousness.
The paradox of this union without confusion, and distinction without separation, can only be understood in terms of its source in Christ. In the communion of saints (the fellowship of “holy ones” in the sharing of “holy things”), Christ bestows on the members of his Body, the Church, the benefits he has obtained for it as Head. Yet late medieval theology could speak of justifying grace in narrow terms as a process involving God and the individual soul, without reference to Christ. The reformers returned Christ, and union with him in faith, by incorporation into his body (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27), to the center of salvation. Calvin puts this way: “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he has to become ours and to dwell within us”. Thus “all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him” (Institutes III, 1). Richard Hooker also speaks of incorporation in Christ as the condition of sharing in saving grace: “Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as be found in him. In him God findeth us, if we be faithful; for by faith we are incorporated in him” (Sermon II, 6). By incorporation in Christ Christians dwell in him (their justification), yet also he dwells in them (their sanctification).
The paradoxical distinction (not separation) and union (not conflation) of these two graces in the Christian has its origin in Christ, in whose person are united two distinct natures, divine and human, without confusion or separation. By the grace of justification, man is in Christ and shares in his divine perfection of righteousness; by the grace of sanctification, Christ works in man to bring him by degrees to perfection. In returning Christ to the center of salvation, the reformers not only recovered the catholic (Augustinian) doctrine of sin and grace but also rethought it in light of the catholic (Augustinian) doctrine of Christ, who as both God and Man is the only Mediator of God and men.
Before Calvin and Hooker wrote, the themes of incorporation and mutual indwelling were already present in the first Prayer Book of 1549, chiefly in the rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The baptized child is “grafted into the body of Christ’s Church”. In the Lord’s Supper, the faithful approach the Holy Table with a prayer “that that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (cf. John 6:56, 14:20 etc.). We pray that those who “worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, may be … made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him” (the wording, incidentally, of 1549 and 1928, by way of the Scottish rites of 1637 and 1764). After receiving the sacrament we give thanks for being assured that “we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom”. And so this perspective informs both the doctrine of the Church and of the Last Things. As the collect for All Saints says, God has “knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord”, and therefore we claim grace “so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee”.
This essay by Fr. Dunbar was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on Oct. 23 & 30, and Nov. 6, 2022.