Larger Catechism, #70 [pt. 1]

The Larger Catechism

Questions 70

70.       Q. What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners,[286] in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight;[287] not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them,[288] but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them,[289] and received by faith alone.[290]


Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[286] Romans 3:22, 24-25. Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference…. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. Romans 4:5. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. [287] 2 Corinthians 5:19, 21. To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation…. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Romans 3:22, 24-25, 27-28. Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference…. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God…. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. [288] Titus 3:5, 7. Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost…. That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Ephesians 1:7. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. [289] Romans 5:17-19. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Romans 4:6-8. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. [290] Acts 10:43. To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins. Galatians 2:16. Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. Philippians 3:9. And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.



            As all Protestants know, the doctrine of justification is the article on which the church stands or falls (articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae).[1] Protestants have historically understood this doctrine quite well but our generation has not embraced this doctrine with the necessary zeal it requires. As a result, ecumenical attempts have emerged to blur the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism on this doctrine (e.g., ECT). Within Protestantism, the New Perspective on Paul has further eroded our understanding of this great doctrine. All of these forces are seducing a generation that is less theological and less concerned about historic biblical doctrines.

Ridgeley’s begins his exposition of this question by highlighting the importance of this doctrine. As he notes, in the LC, justification follows calling like Rom. 8:30, “Whom he called, them he also justified.” His explanation of how these questions relate to each other is very helpful.

Hitherto we have been led to consider that change of heart and life which is begun in effectual calling; whereby a dead sinner is made alive, and one who was wholly indisposed for good works, and averse to the performance of them, is enabled to perform them by the power of divine grace. Now we are to speak concerning that change of state which accompanies change of heart; whereby one who, being guilty before God, was liable to the condemning sentence of the law, and expected no other than an eternal banishment form his presence, is pardoned, received into favour, and has a right to all the blessing which Christ has, by his obedience and sufferings, purchased for him. (Ridgeley, 2:81)

Before expositing this question, we need to define what justification is. Modern evangelicals tend to use the word “saved” far more than “justified.” Furthermore, salvation is often simply defined as forgiveness of sins (it is that and much more).  Though debates about justification abound in the theological world, yet ordinary believers do not readily and frequently use the word. Consequently, absent are the weighty concepts related to the doctrine of justification. As a result, subtle but critical distinctions are lost. The differences, to many, seem inconsequential. In turn, differences between Evangelicals and Papists appear to be minimal. For that reason, we need to carefully explain this doctrine because eternal matters are at stake.


Definition of “Justify”[2]

1. The Latin Vulgate translated the word “justify”  with iustificare (to make righteous). Eventually, it took on the idea of spiritual transformation or a renovation of nature. This transformation presumably took place through the sacraments.[3]  Luther and the Reformers, after studying Scripture, questioned this understanding. Practically speaking, how would you know if you were justified enough, renovated enough? The Roman Catholic answer could never answer that.

2. The idea of justification deals with how a person is related to God and His law.  A court will declare Hitler guilty for infractions and crimes against humanity.  In a more profound sense, man has been declared guilty by God. Man is declared guilty for breaking God’s law.  To declare someone guilty is not to make them sinful but merely states a fact in relation to the law. In its relationship to regeneration (to which we have given some attention), Murray says, “Regeneration is an act of God in us; justification is a judgment of God with respect to us.”[4] Regeneration dealt with what happens in us. Justification is that which happens outside of us (“alien righteousness”).

3. Justification declares us righteous before God and His law.  The key word is declare. “In Scripture to justify does not mean to make righteous in the sense of changing a person’s character. It means to constitute righteous, and to do so by declaration.”[5]  But it is not a legal fiction (i.e. declaring something that is not the case).

The sentence of a human judge is merely declarative; it does not constitute a man either innocent or guilty, it only pronounces him to be so in the eyes of the law: it may even be erroneous, and may pronounce one to be innocent who is really guilty, and another to be guilty who is really innocent; whereas in justifying a sinner, God does what no human judge can do,…He first constitutes him righteous, who was not righteous before, and then declares him to be righteous, in His infallible judgment, which is ever according to truth.[6]

In other words, “The peculiarity of God’s action consists in this that he causes to be the righteous state or relation which is declared to be.”[7]  More simply put, God’s declaration is a truth, it really is the case. He declares to be the case as it really is. We may not feel it is the case or do we recognize it to be the case but that is the wonder of it.  God declares as He sees us to be in relation to Him—that is the most important “perspective.”

4. Scriptural reflections on justification.

a. Justification is declarative and is the opposite of condemnation. That is the way these verses use the term. Deut. 25:1, “If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked,…” Prov. 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.”

b. “The expressions used as synonyms or substitute for justify do not have the sense of ‘making righteous’, but carry this declarative, constitutive sense (cf. Gen. 15:6; Ps. 32:1-2, and Paul’s use of both texts in Rom. 4:3, 6-8).”[8]

c. “The ultimate proof that justification involves a status changed by public declaration lies in the biblical view that through the resurrection Jesus himself was ‘justified’ (1 Tim. 3:16). It would be quite impossible to understand this in the sense of an alteration in our Lord’s character.  It must refer to the vindication of him by God through the triumph and victory of the resurrection.  By the resurrection he was declared to be in a right relationship with God (cf. Rom. 1:4).”[9]

d. So, Scripture teaches justification to be a declarative act and not a statement about someone’s subjective/inherent state.  In other words, it is a declaration of a legal kind (forensic) and not a declaration of one’s inherent righteousness — declared right, not made right.


Act of God’s Free Grace

            The answer begins by affirming the most important point: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners…” This is so important, that the next question explains it more fully by asking, “How is justification an act of God’s free grace?” The divines carefully use the word “act” in relation to justification (SC #33, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace…”) while sanctification is the “work” of God’s free grace (SC #35). Perhaps it is to highlight the fact that “act” is a thing done (actus) while a “work” is a thing ongoing? We may not able to make such a fine distinction in English but the point needs to be registered. What God does in justification is different from what He does in sanctification. I suspect the different verbs merely highlight that very point.

That God justifies is not something God is required to do. It is not a necessity. That He justifies sinners is an act of His “free grace.” God voluntarily does this out of His sheer grace and mercy to sinners. No person can require or presume to expect this from God; it is not an act of justice. No sinner can require God to justify him — the only required act is one of judgment. Unfortunately, a common belief that God exists to pardon and accept sinners permeates many hearts. For them, that is God’s function and responsibility. That God justifies sinners is good news because it is entirely an act of His grace.

God justifies sinners. This has been the source of consternation and confusion among Catholics.[10] Christ died for sinners; God justifies them.  He declares them righteous when they look in faith to Jesus Christ. Whereas Catholics also believe in the justification of the impious, they mean that the person is really made just or righteous. The phrase “justifies the ungodly” comes from Rom 4:5 (Vulgate, justificat impium) — the difference comes from the way it is interpreted. Leon Morris says this about the verse:

God’s saving activity does not operate solely on the most promising material. He justifies the impious, even those actively opposed to him. This is all the more striking in that the Old Testament says that God does not justify the wicked (Exod. 23:7; LXX has “Thou shalt not justify the ungodly”, making it a command); it forbids people from doing it (Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23). Paul is not enunciating a religious commonplace, but giving expression to a resounding paradox.[11]

Indeed, it is resounding paradox. This paradox is pronounced when we read the first part of the verse: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly…” — God justifies the ungodly person who does not work but only believes in him. This is an astounding statement.

Paul’s designation of God as one who ‘justifies the wicked’ would come as a shock to his Jewish readers. In Exod 23:7 God says, “I will not acquit the guilty,” and in Prov 17:15 we learn that he “detests” the practice of acquitting the guilty when carried out by others (cf. Prov 24:24; Isa 5:23). The paradoxical phrase, however, is in keeping with the remarkable fact that a holy God accepts as righteous unholy people on the basis of absolutely nothing but faith. F. F. Bruce comments that God, who alone does great wonders, created the universe from nothing (1:19-20), calls the dead to life (4:17), and justifies the ungodly, “the greatest of all his wonders.”[12]

Lutherans rightly have emphasized the simil iustus et peccator. Those whom God justifies are at the same time sinners. Justification does not make a person righteous, it is declares Him so in God’s court. “It is God who justifies? Who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33, 34) Catholics believe that God can justify the impious because He actually makes them just or righteous, “justification entails the sanctification of the whole being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1995). Justification “conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.” (§1992) We will now look at the statements in the LC that counters such a formulation.

[1] The exact words cannot be found in Luther, cf. Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By: Understanding the Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2010), 149. Karl Barth noted this earlier in his Church Dogmatics. However, the general point is maintained by Luther.

[2] The first point is taken from Macleod, A Faith to Live By, 149-151.

[3] This “means” of justification (via sacraments) is maintained by the “Official Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration issued in June 1998” (Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue). See Dulles, Church and Society, 310-311.

[4]Redemption—Accomplished and Applied (1955), 121.

[5]Ferguson, The Christian Life, 81.

[6]J. Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, 248 (cited by Ferguson).

[7]Murray, Redemption—Accomplished…, 153.

[8]Ferguson, The Christian Life, 82.

[9]Ferguson, The Christian Life, 82.

[10] Trent on Justification, CANON IX. — If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

[11] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 199-200.

[12] Robert H. Mounce, Romans (NAC 27; ed. E. Ray Clendenen; Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 123.

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