Justification Rediscovered: An Evaluation of the Evangelical-Reformed Definition of Justification

dikiaos1-300x105The following is an excerpt from the teaching entitled: Justification Rediscovered. Previously published excerpts include Difficulties in studying the doctrine of justification and Justification Rediscovered affirmations. You can also download a PDF of the entire study or listen to audio of the teaching here.


One of the biggest myths within Evangelical Christianity today, is the belief that Protestants have always agreed on the definition of Justification.

This is not the case now,[1] and it was also not true for the Protestant Reformers.

I cannot regard Zwingli or any of his teachings as Christian at all. He neither holds nor teaches any part of the Christian faith rightly, and is seven times more dangerous than when he was a papist. –Martin Luther

This included even Zwingli’s teaching (or definition) on Justification.[2]

That being said, it would nonetheless be untrue and completely inaccurate to think that such diversity means that one definition has not risen to a level of popularity within Protestant Christianity far above all others.

A. The Evangelical-Reformed Definition of Justification[3]

For heuristic and comparative reasons this definition will be broken into the following categories:  forensic only, permanent and faith only.[4]

1. Forensic Only

In contrast to Augustine and the Roman Catholic Church’s view that justification actually makes its recipients righteous in moral character before God[5], the German Reformers came to completely opposite convictions. For them Justification was:

 A forensic or judicial act only[6] whereby God as Judge was declaring those guilty of breaking the Law to be righteous—not in the sense that they were morally upright or pure—but only that the righteous demands of the Law had been satisfied on their behalf through the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.[7] As a result of this kind of righteous standing or state before God, the guilty sinner was both forgiven and worthy to receive eternal life.

This particular aspect of Justification was adopted by the Swiss Reformers as well and therefore was not an area of contention among them, but rather a rallying point against the Roman Catholics’ view of Subjective Justification (i.e. God actually makes the sinner morally righteous in Justification).[8]

The basis for holding to this “strictly forensic” view of Justification was due in large part to German Reformer, Philip Melanchthon’s philological and exegetical study of the verbal form of this term in the Hebrew Scriptures. He became convinced that Paul’s usage of various terms to communicate justification in the New Testament was based upon this and its seemingly exclusive forensic nature.[9]  It was actually Melanchthon’s influence in this area more than Luther’s which solidified it as the official Lutheran definition as well as its entrance into the historic Augsburg Confession.[10] For this reason, Melanchthon is often considered the true “father” of the Lutheran definition of Justification and its popularity within Protestant Evangelical Christianity.[11]

2. Permanent

The Evangelical-Reformed definition of Justification teaches that once a person is justified by expressing faith, their new righteous standing and forensic declaration before God is permanent and therefore can never be forfeited or lost. As such Justification becomes synonymous with Salvation since once a person has been justified there is no possibility of forfeiture or lost therefore securing that person’s eternal future.[12]

3. Faith only

What is to be understood by this designation is not the same as “faith alone.” Protestants throughout history have all agreed with Martin Luther that Justification is gained only by faith alone. Where there has however been disagreement, is over whether or not faith (i.e. trust in Christ) is all that is ever a part of Justification. It is here that this designation applies. The Evangelical-Reformed definition sees faith (i.e. trust in Christ) as the only thing ever associated with Justification. In other words, faithfulness, obedience to God or good works are never a factor in one’s Justification. This too is consistent with the views of Martin Luther.[13]

This once more is how the vast majority of Protestant Christians would define Justification. This definition however, falls woefully short in all three categories when placed under the close scrutiny of the biblical text and the theological questions it raises in regard to this subject.

B. Sound-Biblical Definition Of Justification

As with the prior definition, this definition will also be broken into three categories for heuristic and comparative reasons. Those categories are: forensic and moral, conditional and faith and faithfulness.

  1. Forensic and Moral

Though there is no doubt that the verbal forms of justification in its various forms can refer to something that is strictly forensic in nature (Exodus 23:7; Isaiah 5:23; Proverbs 17:15; Luke 16:15; Matthew 11;19; Job 32:2; Psalm 51:4; Romans 3:4; Luke 7:29; Acts 19:40), when speaking from a soteriological perspective however, there is also a moral element. With that in mind consider:

i) There are times in Scripture when the Greek term (dikaiow) translated “righteous” or “just” is clearly used to refer to a person who is morally righteous or just before God.[14]

Daniel 6:23

lit. “and my God saved me out of the lion’s mouth because of the righteousness in me He found.”

(Also consider: Luke 1:6; Psalms 18:20, 24)

ii)  Scripture uses terms which seem to communicate that in the act of Justification God also “makes (morally) righteous.”

1 Corinthians 6:11

(2pap) = wash away, to cleanse or make clean in relation to sin (Job 9:30; Acts 22:16)

(2pap) = to sanctify or purify by washing (Heb 9:13)

(2pap) = to MAKE RIGHTEOUS—this has to be the meaning given the preceding words which qualify it.

Titus 3:5-7

Clearly “the washing of regeneration” here refers to Justification since that is the conclusion he draws in verse 7. In addition, “so that being justified by His grace” parallels verse 5 “saved…according to His mercy”—which means that Paul is now revealing the instrument which actually did the washing in the regenerative process.[15]

Romans 6:1-11

These verses are the continuation of Paul’s teaching on Justification in Christ by faith which he began in 3:21. Being “set free from sin” is not a forensic reality but a moral one. [16]

2. Conditional

The Scriptures know nothing of a Justification which cannot be forfeited or lost. Though what Christ did through His death affords to individuals entrance into a completely righteous, redeemed, reconciled and renewed standing/state with God[17] which is impervious to outside forces or future condemnation (Rom 8:31-39), such a standing/state is conditioned upon our actions after we enter in. Hence, Justification can be lost both temporally and permanently.

The following support should make this abundantly convincing and clear:[18]

i)  Scriptural references which cannot be teaching or talking about anything other than a loss of Justification.

2 Corinthians 5:9-20

According to Paul elsewhere, being “reconciled to God” is a concept associated exclusively with Justification (consider Rom 5:1-10). Though the Corinthians had received this standing with God initially by faith in Christ (which is why Paul planted a church among them, 1Co 3:10), they had through their unrepentant disobedience and embracing of false antinomian beliefs and teachers (vv 11-15) forfeited/lost this standing. This then is the reason for Paul’s continued admonishment in chapter 6 (see especially vv1-2 and 14-18).[19]

(Also consider: Matthew 18:21-35; 2 John 1:8; 2 Peter 2:20-22, 3:16-17; Hebrews 6:1-8)

ii) The fact that Scripture speaks of both initial Justification and something yet future based on what we do in between.[20]

 Galatians 5:1-5

In 3:1-14 Paul makes it clear that those he is writing to are those who have initially received Justification in Christ by faith. Yet they are to v5, “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness (justification—same word as v4)—understanding that their actions in between could forfeit its realization.

(Also consider: Hebrews 6:9-12; Philippians 3:8-16; Romans 2:13)

3. Faith and Faithfulness

In correlation to the previous point, faithfulness becomes the necessary helpmate to initial faith in Christ– not as that which gains Justification but maintains it unto Salvation[21]. In other words, though Justification cannot be possessed by our obedience or good works, it nonetheless is preserved by such actions.[22] Since however this aspect of Justification is so vital to the upcoming section’s material, biblical support will instead be discussed there.


[1] See Justification: Five Views, Beilby, James K. and Paul Rhodes Eddy editors. The authors in this book would all save one consider themselves to be Protestant yet embracing different views on the meaning of Justification.

[2] Consider again Peter Lillback’s statement, “Luther was convinced the Swiss were teaching the same as the pope concerning justification.”

[3] By using the term “Evangelical-Reformed” I am referring to all of those within Protestant Christianity whose definition of Justification is an amalgamation of German and Swiss Reformed teaching since it was Luther who first coined the term “Evangelical” and it was the Swiss who took to themselves and their churches the title “Reformed.”  The components of this definition will be very similar to Michael Horton’s in Justification:  Five Views, which he calls the “Traditional Reformed View.”  The problem I have with that definition however is the fact that it gives the allusion that the division and diversity which clearly existed among the Reformers over this doctrine was inconsequential or insignificant. This as already demonstrated was hardly the case.

[4] The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a key part of this definition and therefore would in most cases create a fourth category. It has however been omitted from the discussion at this point since I will give the entire section titled “Application” to this issue.

[5] None seem to contest this as the Roman Catholic Church’s view of Justification. Where however, there may be questions is as it relates to Augustine since it is well known that Luther as well as the other Reformers identified him as their closest historical connection for their theological views. For this reason I submit the analysis of Alan J. Spence for consideration, “(According to Augustine) justification forms in us a created rather than imputed righteousness…Justification is for him not only an act of pardon but the creation of a new way of living. This formation of righteousness in a person is always viewed by Augustine as an ongoing process rather than an instantaneous completed act…We see then that Augustine interprets ‘to justify’ as meaning ‘to make righteous in behavior’.”; Justification:  A Guide For The Perplexed, p. 34-35

[6] The Council of Trent declared this to be “legal fiction” since there was no moral aspect to this form of justification.

[7] simul justus et peccator (at the same time both just and yet sinner) was Luther’s way of explaining this.

[8] Early Princeton theologian Charles Hodge in discussing the issue of Justification as a forensic act, confirms that, “by this the Reformers intended, in the first place, to deny the Romish doctrine of subjective justification.”  Hodges also confirms my definition here as that of the Reformers when he states that for them, “justification (was) judicial or forensic, i.e., an act of God as Judge proceeding according to Law, declaring the sinner is just, i.e., that the Law no longer condemns him, but acquits him to be entitled to eternal life.”  Again, nothing more than a declaration of righteousness is conferred, it is truly forensic only.

[9] In his Loci Communes, Melanchthon writes, “…for the Hebrews ‘to justify’ is a forensic verb (only)…Paul therefore understood the word for ‘justifying’ from the usage of the Hebrew word.”; For further discussion consider Mark Seifrid’s Paul’s usage of Righteousness Language Against Its Hellenistic Background p. 67-74 in Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 2, D.A. Carson ed.

[10] See justification of the Ungodly by Henri Blocher, p. 491 in Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 2, D.A. Carson ed.

[11] “The father of the ‘Protestant’ emphasis was Melanchthon.”, Henri Blocher, ibid, p.491; Mark Seifrid concurs by stating that Melanchthon’s definition of Justification, especially its strictly forensic nature has  become “determinative for most of Protestant Theology.” Ibid, p. 67.

[12] Ironically this aspect of Justification has been influenced more by the Swiss Reformers than the Germans who seemed to believe it could be lost. Article 12 of the Augsburg Confession states, “[Our churches] condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that those once justified can lose the Holy Ghost”, which at the very least seems to communicate the loss of Justification—if not also Salvation.  Consider also http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2009/10/did-luther-believe-salvation-can-be.html. In support of permanency as the position of the Evangelical community, consider the words of John Ankerberg: “…a man’s justification depend(s) solely on Christ’s meritorious life and atoning death—and not upon anything which a man can do—(therefore) a person could never lose his justification before God. Since Christ had already lived a perfect life and died to pay for all of man’s sins, nothing will ever change what Christ did—this is the very basis of a man’s justification. Therefore, once a person believes in Christ, he or she is entirely and eternally secure.”

[13] One of Luther’s biggest contentions with not only the Swiss Reformers—but also Melanchthon—was their acceptance of what came to be known as the “third use of the law”—the belief that obedience to God’s laws are necessary to salvation and something the believer must pursue as pleasing to God. Luther saw this as a threat to his view of Justification and therefore rejected it—since to believe it necessary to salvation seemed to call into question the sufficiency of Christ’s work in Justification—and was therefore in his mind dangerously close to the position held by the Roman Catholics. For further consideration of this subject see Book of Concord, XVII, 183.

[14] “As a state of affairs in the world, ‘righteousness’ cannot be accomplished or even rightly conceived apart from its enactment by God”, Mark Seifrid, ibid, p.45. I am in full agreement with this statement as I believe also that the Scripture communicates nothing less. Which means this is the underlying and ultimate reason for all of those who are identified as morally righteous within its pages.

[15] Since the idea of washing in each of these contexts is in reference to sin, forgiveness as a forensic act must be seen as preceding this moral act. In other words, we are declared “forgiven” and therefore also “righteous” because our sin has been “washed away.”  Hence the biblical view unlike the Roman Catholic, or Reformed View sees the moral aspect of Justification preceding the forensic. Which is why, what the Bible teaches is neither legalistic nor a legal fiction. This is also an important distinction which finds parallel in the OT Priesthood:  Consecration through cleansing before declaration to office (i.e. installment or ability to minister before God). The same pattern therefore is carried over into the NT where we serve as priests before God (1Pe 2; Rev 1).

[16] In relation to this moral aspect of justification and its use in Romans 6 and Titus 3, Norm Shepherd writes, ”In Romans 6;7, (justification) is used where theologically we would expect the vocabulary of sanctification. Paul says that the sinner who has been crucified with Christ has died to sin and is no longer a slave to sin. He ‘has been freed from sin.’  Literally Paul writes that he has been ‘justified from sin.’  We may well have a similar use of ‘justify’ in Titus 3:5-7. ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.’  Here Paul may be using ‘justify’ in the sense of forgiveness; but the language also suggests that ‘justification’ is simply another way of referring to the renewal by the Holy Spirit. This shows the close connection between justification and sanctification in the Scripture.” (A Faith That Is Never Alone, p.274).

[17] This is my summary definition of Justification as it relates to our standing/state before God based on Paul’s explanation in Rom 6-8. “Renewed” refers to the transformative state of purity and power we now exist in as a result of dying and being raised to life with Jesus Christ—a life free from sin’s dominion and for obedience to God. It is important to mention also that my use of the term “entrance” when speaking of initial faith is also deliberate. This is the idea communicated by Paul in when speaking of initial faith unto Justification (Rom 5:2). This is also something we will discuss more extensively under the section titled, “History.”

[18] What also becomes abundantly convincing and clear (as one considers these) is that Justification and Salvation cannot therefore be synonymous.  Whereas Salvation is permanent, being conditioned upon the decrees and election of God, Justification is not, being conditioned upon the actions of man after initial faith and entrance into this state; In relation those holding to Evangelical-Reformed definition and therefore seeing Justification and Salvation as synonymous, Mark Seifrid’s words are telling, “for the Septuagintal translators at least, ‘salvation’ did not serve as a translation equivalent for ‘righteousness’. In other words, they understood that the meaning of ‘righteousness’ could not be reduced to the idea of ‘salvation’. Current scholarship (however) has tended to a reduction that is absent in the Septuagint.” Ibid, p.52.

[19] I am abundantly aware of how this affects Ordo Salutis: If justification can be lost, then what about the indwelling Spirit or adoption which follows it?   I do however believe that further examination of these subjects reveal the possibility of loss as well. In these cases, it is more the soteriological paradigm which is driving their permanency than the testimony of Scripture. In this light consider: Eph 4:30; Psa 51:11; Heb 12:16-17.

[20] Several scholars as of recent have recognized this “now-not yet” aspect of Justification. In this regard Douglas Moo states, “A future element in justification does not fit entirely comfortably within my own Reformed tradition. It is messy. But it appears to be biblical”, see http://www.totascriptura.com/2011/09/09/doug-moo-quotes-on-justification-from-understanding-the-times/. In Future Justification:  Some Theological and Exegetical Proposals (Faith Is Never Alone, P. Andrew Sandlin, ed.), Richard Lusk classifies the distinctions as “Initial” and “Final” Justification.

[21] The idea that faithfulness is necessary to salvation, is something clearly taught in the Westminster Standards, “Holy obedience is not only evidence of salvation, but the way of salvation.” (WLC 32). By the way, to argue that this is referring only to Salvation and not Justification reveals not only a faulty understanding of both since one is the function of the other (Justification of Salvation).

[22] In this way, I believe the mantra of the Reformers is best captured, “We are justified by faith alone, but faith is never alone.”