Justification: What the Debate Is All About

David M. VanDrunen

The most important biblical truth recovered by the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of justification. Reading especially Paul's epistles to the Romans and Galatians, the Reformers taught that justification is by faith alone, in Christ alone.

Taking their stand on the Word of God, the Reformers taught a doctrine of justification perhaps nowhere more helpfully summarized than in the Larger Catechism, Q. 70:

Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

Reformed churches have embraced this teaching now for nearly five hundred years. But they have always done so against opposition. Most notably, the Roman Catholic Church has continued to proclaim that Christians, after a lifelong process of inner renewal, can merit acceptance by God on the last day through the grace imparted by the church's sacraments.

In recent years, major challenges to the Reformed doctrine of justification have also been put forward by some Protestant scholars specializing in Paul's epistles, some even of Reformed background. These Protestants are generally identified with the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP). The roots of the NPP go back at least to the 1970s, but its ideas have been more recently popularized by the English scholar N. T. Wright. Those of Reformed persuasion who hold similar views are often identified as part of the "Federal Vision" (FV) movement (holding "Auburn Avenue" theology).

In this article, I will explain the various aspects of the Reformed doctrine of justification and call attention to how movements such as the NPP and the FV have posed challenges to this doctrine in the present day.

The Nature of Justification

The Reformed tradition understands justification to be both forensic and definitive. By forensic we mean that justification is a judicial declaration, by which God declares a person to be righteous before him. This declaration does not work inward transformation, changing people's hearts to make them holy in thought and conduct. That is sanctification, not justification. Instead, like a judge in a courtroom, God declares people righteous before his law in the act of justification.

By describing justification as definitive, we mean that it is a once-for-all accomplished, completed, and perfect act. No one is only partially justified or has to await an increase or completion of justification at a later time. Rather, when people come to faith, their justification puts them at peace with God and secures their eternal destiny.

These teachings have long put Reformed Christians at odds with Roman Catholicism, which teaches that justification is a lifelong process of moral transformation, leading to a final verdict of justification on the basis of one's own good works. In recent years, some advocates of the NPP have taught similar ideas. Wright, for example, has said that, though we are justified in the present life by faith, there awaits a future justification on the basis of our entire life.

The Demands of God's Law

Behind the Reformed doctrine of justification stands the Reformed doctrine of God's law. That is, God requires perfect obedience to his law, and not one of us, as fallen sinners, is able to meet this requirement. On our own merits, we all stand condemned. God is a just judge, and as such he must condemn sinners. In creation, God entered into a covenant of works with Adam, promising him eschatological life upon perfect obedience and threatening him with death upon disobedience. In accordance with his justice, God condemned Adam and his posterity when he fell, and he continues to condemn us all as sinners. Although God is abundantly merciful as well as just, his mercy must be consistent with his justice. Hence, no sinner judged on the basis of his own works can be justified by the holy and righteous God. No matter how good we try to be, we all fall short of God's righteous demands.

Since this matter is so foundational to the doctrine of justification, it is no surprise that critics have challenged it. One of the early scholars who helped to establish the NPP had already been arguing that the Old Testament law (and its Jewish interpreters) did not demand perfect obedience. In Reformed circles, a number of people associated with the FV have disputed the doctrine of the covenant of works and rejected the teaching that Adam would have attained eschatological life on the basis of his righteous works.

The Righteousness of Christ

The good news of the gospel is that God has not left us in the state of sin and condemnation. In his mercy, God has provided a way for sinners to be justified by sending his Son to satisfy the just demands of the law. Sinners who place their trust in Christ can now be judged by God on the basis of Christ's righteous works, not their own unrighteous works.

There are two aspects to the work of Christ, namely, his passive and his active obedience. Christ's passive obedience is his suffering obedience, his bearing of the penalty of the curse of the law throughout his life and especially in his crucifixion. By this work, our sins are forgiven. Christ's active obedience is his keeping of the commands of the law throughout his life. By this work, we are reckoned to have kept the law perfectly, as originally demanded of Adam in the covenant of works. Thus, the demands of God's justice are satisfied and the glorious riches of his grace are displayed.

This righteousness of Christ must be applied to believers if it is to be of benefit to them. This application of Christ's benefits comes by means of imputation. That is, Christ's righteousness is judicially reckoned or credited to sinners so that their sins may be forgiven and the perfect obedience of Christ may be accounted as their own.

It is again not surprising that these matters so central to justification have provoked controversy in recent years. Proponents of the NPP have rejected the idea that Paul teaches that Christ kept the law perfectly for us, and that his righteousness is credited to us. And though people associated with the FV continue to affirm the doctrine of Christ's passive obedience, many of them have explicitly denied that Christ's active obedience is imputed to us. In other words, they teach that Christ's perfect obedience throughout his life made him a perfect sacrifice for sins, but not that this obedience to God's law is credited to believers so that they stand before God as perfect law keepers themselves.

By Faith Alone

According to the biblical, Reformed doctrine of justification, the sinner receives this imputation of the righteousness of Christ by faith, and by faith alone. When Scripture describes faith as that by which a sinner is justified, it often does so in sharp contrast to the other alternative, that is, justification by works. Thus, faith is the only means of justification. This truth is properly understood when the nature of saving faith is appreciated: instead of relying on one's own works, the believer relies on the perfect work of Jesus Christ.

This aspect of the doctrine of justification has also come under fire in recent years. For example, while proponents of the FV generally affirm that justification is by faith, and even by faith alone, some have spoken of justifying faith as more than relying on Christ and his work and have written of faith as a broader concept, as faithfulness. Such teaching makes our broader obedience to God, and not the act of resting upon Christ alone, the means of our justification.


Finally, while the Reformed tradition has affirmed that justification is distinct from sanctification (that work by which God inwardly renews believers in holiness), it has also affirmed that these two blessings are inseparable. They are different blessings—one declares us right in God's sight because of Christ's work; the other makes us inwardly holy-—yet God never justifies a person without also sanctifying that person. Roman Catholics and others in the present day have complained that the Reformed doctrine of justification leads to indifference with regard to personal holiness. Yet the Reformed teaching that genuine justification is never present without sanctification demonstrates how unjust this complaint is.


This article has offered only a brief summary of the Reformed doctrine of justification and of the contemporary challenges to it. For a more detailed discussion, see the Report of the Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification, commended by the Seventy-third General Assembly (2006). It is available online and is being published by the Committee on Christian Education. May God grant us renewed love for his gospel and zeal for this biblical truth.

The author, an OP minister, teaches at Westminster Seminary California. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2007.

New Horizons: February 2007

Getting the Gospel Right

Also in this issue

Getting the Gospel Right

Justified Now and Forever

Understanding the "Federal Vision"

A Review Article: Paul for Everyone, by Wright

Catch the Wave: OPC.org

Helps for Worship #15: Prayer of Confession (Part 1)

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