Justification and Unity

Philip Eveson


Evangelicals and Roman Catholics Together

In 1994 the evangelical world was presented with a document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. It was drawn up by eight Protestants, under the leadership of Charles Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship, and seven Roman Catholics, headed by the Roman Catholic priest R. J. Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor. In addition, it was endorsed by twelve more Protestants, including such well-known figures as J. I. Packet Os Guinness, Mark Noll and Bill Bright, and by thirteen more Roman Catholics such as Cardinal O’Connor and the Jesuit bishop Carlos Sevilla.’1

The document recognises that evangelicals and Roman Catholics have much in common. Despite certain disagreements and differences in doctrine and practice, ‘Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ’ who share a common faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour and affirm together that they are ‘justified by grace through faith because of Christ’. They also share values crucial to the well-being of society. They condemn the practice of proselytizing or ‘sheep stealing’ and ‘of recruiting people from another community for purposes of denominational aggrandizement’, while at the same time they defend ‘the legal freedom’ to do so. The call, however, is to a new commitment not only to work together on social and cultural issues but also to witness together in preparation for Christ’s return. Whether it be in ‘great Christian expansion’ or in ‘persecution and apparent marginalization’ they affirm that ‘we are in this together’. Difficult and long-standing problems ‘must not be permitted to overshadow the truths on which we are, by the grace of God, in firm agreement’. They see the present as a time of opportunity and responsibility ‘for Evangelicals and Catholics to be Christians together in a way that helps prepare the world for the coming of him to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.’

In the light of much adverse criticism, a number of the original signatories and backers came together and faced their critics at a meeting held on 19th January 1995 at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. By the end of the day the evangelical leaders of the accord agreed a five-point statement, designed to ‘elucidate’ their own position.2

The new statement says that cooperation between evangelicals and ‘evangelically committed Roman Catholics’ on common concerns does not mean they endorse the Roman Catholic ‘church system’ or ‘doctrinal distinctives’. They affirm their own belief in ‘the historic Protestant understanding of salvation by faith alone (sola fide)’ which they spell out as ‘the substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness of Christ, leading to full assurance of eternal salvation.’ While viewing all who profess to be Christian, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, ‘with charity and hope’, they add ‘our confidence that anyone is truly a brother and sister in Christ depends not only on the content of his or her confession but on our perceiving signs of regeneration in his or her life.’ Again, although they reject proselytizing as defined in the original document, they add ‘we hold that evangelism and church planting are always legitimate, whatever forms of church life are present already.’

Some of the critics have applauded this second statement while others are less than happy. John MacArthur, the pastor of the independent Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California was glad that Colson and Packer had the opportunity to clarify ‘what is clarified there’. But he feels that ‘it still doesn’t go as far as I would have hoped.’ He firmly believes that the evangelical signatories of the original document should ‘recant’. Roman Catholicism should be recognised as ‘another religion’.3

One of the evangelical men to back Evangelicals and Catholics Together, as we have seen, was Dr. Jim Packer who issued a statement of his own in Christianity Today prior to the Fort Lauderdale meeting, entitled ‘Why I Signed It’. In it he makes clear his opposition to Rome while at the same time justifying cooperation with Roman Catholics not only in social witness but also in evangelism.4 The document he says, ‘affirms positions and expresses attitudes that have been mine for half a lifetime.’

He gives three reasons for maximizing ‘mission activity in partnership with Roman Catholics’. First, we must recognize that ‘good evangelical Protestants and good Roman Catholics — good, I mean, in terms of their own church’s stated ideal of spiritual life — are Christians together’. This ‘mutual acknowledgment brings obligations’, one of these obligations is ‘that God’s family here on earth should seek to look like one family by acting as one family’. This means that ‘where there is fellowship in faith, fellowship in service should follow. . . . So togetherness in mission is appropriate.’ To cherish an isolationist spirit is sin. Secondly, the present situation ‘cries out for an alliance of good evangelical Protestants with good Roman Catholics (and good Eastern Orthodox, too)’. While a coalition already exists among evangelicals in North America to resist the post-modernist theologies that have affected both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, there would be a stronger stand for truth if it were in closer step with ‘the parallel Catholic coalition that has recently begun to grow.’ He believes that propagating the basic faith together is timely. Thirdly, we need to recognize that ‘mission ventures involving evangelicals and Catholics side by side, not only in social witness but in evangelism and nurture as well, have already emerged’. He gives three examples: battling together on the abortion issue; ‘Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism’; and ‘charismatic get-togethers’.

There are many aspects of the accord between evangelicals and Roman Catholics and of Packer’s clarifying statement which are disturbing but none more so than the affirmation concerning justification. ‘We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of Christ.’ It would appear from this that there is no fundamental disagreement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics on this crucial issue. The differences between Roman Catholics and evangelicals which are listed later do not include the subject of justification. This is incredible when it is generally admitted that this was the great divide at the time of the Reformation and is still the major doctrinal sticking-point between Rome and Protestants. Kenneth Kantzer, one of the senior editors of Christianity Today, commented, ‘Justification by faith is mentioned as a common commitment as though it had never been a matter of serious disagreement.’5

This statement on justification is quite acceptable to all Roman Catholics, whether they would describe themselves as evangelical or traditional. It is very similar to the definition given at the beginning of the last chapter by the Jesuit theologian. It is the position of Trent and the recent Roman Catechism. Rome affirms that justification is by grace. It has no problem with the need for faith which is ‘active in love’. Rome also believes that the meritorious cause of justification is the work of Christ on our behalf. Where lies the problem? It is, as we have previously emphasised, over the little word ‘alone’. A whole world of difference results when ‘alone’ is added to each of the words ‘grace’, ‘faith’ and ‘Christ’. This is not a question of agreeing to disagree over some secondary issue. The heart of the gospel is at stake.

If this is so, how can ‘good evangelical Protestants and good Roman Catholics’, to use Packer’s words, cooperate in evangelism? Though the evidence available suggests that there is a significant number of Roman Catholics who do not accept the authority of all the official Roman teaching and may privately embrace some evangelical views, this does not necessarily mean they appreciate the essence of the gospel. It may also be true that there are many ‘real Christians’ who for one reason or another are remaining within the Roman Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that among the ‘real Christians’ and ‘good Roman Catholics’ there are people like R. J. Neuhaus, the chief Roman Catholic instigator of this accord. From being a Lutheran pastor he has converted to Rome and become one of its priests. He seems to like what he sees in evangelicalism and wants to cooperate with evangelicals, yet has recently gone on oath to accept all the unreformed teachings of Rome. In America, there has been a disturbing number of converts to Rome from within the evangelical constituency in recent years.6 It is clear that they do not appreciate the heart of the gospel.7 How then can there be unity in preaching the gospel and nurturing young believers with such people as Neuhaus, who have openly embraced a system of belief that runs counter to all that historic evangelicalism stands for?

Though Colson, Packer and the other evangelical participants have clarified their position with regard to justification, they in no way want to detract from what they originally affirmed. This must mean that while they personally believe that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone they have deliberately agreed to leave this out in the interests of working more closely together. What kind of evangelicalism is that? They say they are firmly committed to the Protestant understanding of salvation and see Rome’s teaching as cutting across Paul’s doctrine of justification, and yet they are prepared to agree to a Roman Catholic statement concerning justification, in the interests of social, cultural and evangelistic ends.

United action by individuals across political and religious lines for the good of society has always been encouraged. We have no quarrel with that. What is unacceptable is evangelicals and Roman Catholics working together in mission as a kind of para-church organization, to maintain Christian traditions and culture, to battle for truth, to engage in evangelism and to advance the kingdom of Christ. Colson and Packer are encouraging a new generation of evangelicals to assume that justification by faith alone is not that important and that Roman Catholics merely belong to a different Christian denomination. The sad truth is that Roman Catholics are joined up to what can only be described as ‘another religion’ — something which, in the end, the Reformers came to see.

It is less than consistent for the evangelical supporters of the accord to state in one breath that they believe the historic Protestant position on justification and then to affirm with Roman Catholics a deliberately weakened statement. Each party to the agreement is being allowed to understand the statement according to its own particular position, whether Protestant or Roman. There is no recognition that in the very matter of justification the two positions are diametrically opposed. We have to ask the evangelicals about the strength of their commitment to the evangelical Protestant truth. The doctrine of justification cannot be left vague in ‘interfaith accord’ with Roman Catholics. What is more, there is no concern to encourage the Roman Catholic partners to the agreement to embrace the gospel truth concerning justification rediscovered by the Reformers. But as John Armstrong the Director of Reformation and Revival Ministries urges, ‘I owe it to God and to my [Catholic] friend to ‘speak the truth.’ I also owe it to him to do it ‘in love.’8

It needs to be recalled that men like Luther, Latimer and Calvin, to name but a few, grew up in a church where the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, the importance of his atoning sacrifice, the grace of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit were believed. Nevertheless, these men were never taught the key element in the gospel, the truth concerning the biblical doctrine of justification. It is not impossible that such a situation could arise again, especially as the doctrine is so little understood and preached, and as evangelical leaders are allowing a truncated version of it to be the basis for united evangelistic activity.

Remember the situation that existed between Jew and Samaritan when our Lord was on earth and his outspoken criticism of the Samaritan religion. Surrounded as they were by a multiplicity of gods, it would have been in the interests of Jew and Samaritan to have cooperated together on moral, cultural and religious issues of the day, seeing they both believed in one creator God, accepted the Mosaic law, saw the need for sacrifice at a central sanctuary, and looked forward to a promised deliverer. They had so much in common! Jesus, however, makes it very clear that the Samaritans do not belong within that stream of divine revelation out of which the Saviour will come (John 4:22). After making such uncompromising statements to the woman of Samaria, Jesus then directed her to himself, of Davidic Jewish line. He is the reality to which the shadowy Jerusalem, and not the heretical Gerizim, worship pointed. In a similar way evangelicals need to be more outspoken in their criticism of Roman Catholicism, and far from uniting with individual Roman Catholics in evangelism and encouraging them in their false religion and view of justification, they should be pointing them to the gospel truth concerning justification by faith alone and all that that means in practice.

Instead of evangelicals drawing attention to the errors of Rome and urging ‘brothers and sisters’ in that religious system to come out, the Evangelical-Catholic accord denounces ‘sheep-stealing’. ‘It is neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of resources for one Christian community to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community.’ No wonder Neuhaus is quoted as saying that ‘appropriate parties at the Holy See’ gave the initiative their ‘strongest encouragement’.9 If such a statement, endorsed by evangelical heavy-weights, can become accepted worldwide it would call a halt, for instance, to the massive drift from Rome into the evangelical churches of South America. At the same time, Rome itself, which is not party to the agreement, can continue to woo evangelicals and other Protestants into its fold. ‘It is with mounting conviction’ reported The Times on May 30, 1995, ‘that today’s Catholics pray for the conversion of England. The conversion of the Establishment, crucial to their goal, is already well advanced.’

Charles Colson is adamant that the situation today demands more than Christians merely working together with others as citizens in political alliances. A distinctively Christian witness is needed to fight against secularism, New Age spirituality and theological liberalism. Writing in Christianity Today he states, ‘At root, it is a battle for truth — and to fight effectively we need a distinctive Christian presence and world-view.’ He goes on to argue that ‘our best weapon is the distinctiveness of Christian truth, expressed in unity by all true believers.’10 This is all very well and good if there is a clear statement setting out what the Christian truth is and on which all the participants are agreed. But if there is uncertainty and confusion over such a vital element of the gospel as God’s justifying grace then how can they battle for the truth? What is more, is Colson suggesting that evangelical Protestants should work alongside Roman Catholics to maintain the kind of ‘Christian’ culture seen in countries where the Reformation truths have been suppressed for many centuries? Awful idolatrous practices, encouraged by the Roman establishment, dominate those societies which have not known the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Are we to ask evangelical missionaries in Italy and Spain, for instance, to support a culture where idols of Mary are often paraded through the streets? Would they now be better employed if they pulled out of these ‘Catholic’ countries and went across the Mediterranean to North Africa?

The Reformers did not think in the way some modern evangelicals are expressing themselves, nor did the evangelicals of the eighteenth century. At the time of the Reformation, the Pope and the Reformers were well aware of the growing might of Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire. Did the Reformers compromise on the doctrine of justification in order to unite with Rome against the common enemy? No! Did the evangelicals of the eighteenth century feel it necessary to unite with Roman Catholics to fight the deists? No! They strongly denounced Roman doctrine and looked to the Lord for success in preaching the gospel. It was revival in the church which killed off the effects of deism and set in motion a great advance in evangelical Christianity worldwide resulting in social and moral by-products for the good of societies.

Packer sees this Evangelical-Roman Catholic alliance as a grassroots ecumenical action out of which can grow a relationship of trust. It is in this atmosphere that he believes the differences and disagreements on doctrine and practice between the Roman and Protestant churches can be more fully and candidly addressed.11 Such ‘unofficial’ cooperation is now being more widely appreciated as the best way to progress towards the goal of Christian unity. This is something that we shall return to at the end of the chapter.

Prior to these evangelical moves, two notable documents on the subject of justification appeared, the result of ‘official’ dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics. They are included here not only for their importance to the ecumenical debate on justification but as examples of the kind of language that present-day theologians are using to produce such joint statements and the evangelical response to them.

Lutherans and Roman Catholics Together

After six years of discussion the United States Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue group published, in 1983, a comprehensive document entitled Justification by Faith.12 It is in two parts. Part Two prints the sixteen background papers. The agreed statement appears in Part One, which is divided into three chapters. Chapter one deals very competently with the history of the doctrine. In chapter two there is reflection on and interpretation of the various elements of the doctrine that have produced misunderstanding and differences of opinion, such as forensic justification, the sinfulness of the justified, the sufficiency of faith, merit, satisfaction for sins, and the criteria for testing authentic Christianity. All this is done by setting them in the light of the different concerns and patterns of thought in the two traditions. This is very cleverly done so that, despite the differences which are freely admitted, what is highlighted is a growing consensus over fundamental concerns and beliefs. An effort is made in chapter three to think jointly over the differences that remain by looking briefly at the biblical data on justification, and then by summarizing and reflecting on the ‘convergences in biblical exegesis and theological understanding.’13

Despite their differences, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics are said to be bearing witness in their different contexts and statements to a basic consensus on the gospel. They make the following affirmation:

‘Our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Jesus Christ and on the gospel whereby the good news of God’s merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God’s promise and saving work in Christ.’14

They admit that such an affirmation ‘is not fully equivalent to the Reformation teaching on justification’, but by its insistence that reliance for salvation should be placed entirely on God, they claim that ‘it expresses a central concern of that doctrine’. Yet at the same time ‘it does not exclude the traditional Catholic position that the grace-wrought transformation of sinners is a necessary preparation for final salvation.’15 What is this but a compromise in the direction of Rome?

In addition, they were able to formulate twelve points of agreement where previously there has been misunderstanding. Among them is this statement: ‘Justification, as a transition from disfavor and unrighteousness to favor and righteousness in God’s sight, is totally God’s work. By justification we are both declared and made righteous. Justification is, therefore, not a legal fiction. God, in justifying, effects what he promises; he forgives sin and makes us truly righteous.’ This again is a far cry from the Reformation teaching, but very acceptable to Rome. The word ‘transition’ is itself an ambiguous term in this context. In so far as it suggests a process of change, the meaning, as we saw in the last chapter, runs counter to the Protestant position. Justification is not a transition from unrighteousness to righteousness but a judicial act of God pronouncing the unrighteous to be immediately righteous in God’s sight. But even if ‘transition’ simply means ‘change of position’ the definition makes it clear that justification includes an inward state of righteousness as well as an outward change of status.

In his study of the document, Dr. Alister McGrath, the noted Oxford don who is an authority on justification, helpfully draws attention to the way it acknowledges the quite different approaches to the doctrine by the two traditions while at the same time it argues ‘that they are complementary and convergent, rather than contradictory and divergent’.16 Like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic statement emphasises that differences can exist between the two parties in the way they view and express justification but in reality they are all bearing witness to the one gospel. This will not do. The message which it conveys is that, though Protestants disagree with Roman Catholics in their confessional statements on justification, it does not really matter any more. As McGrath puts it, this document affirms that Protestant and Roman confessions are all ‘legitimate ways of attempting to safeguard the same crucial insight’ that ‘the ultimate foundation of our justification’ lies in God’s action in Christ.17 This is just not sufficient. Despite all the effort to present a common statement, the great doctrine of the Reformers has been compromised and it has lost its cutting edge.

Anglicans and Roman Catholics Together

The Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II) was set up to resolve some of the outstanding doctrinal differences that still divide the two communions. It was recommended that they first consider the doctrine of justification, as it was widely believed that unless there was the prospect of agreement on this issue there could be no ‘full doctrinal agreement’ between the two church organizations. After three years’ work an agreed statement was published in 1987.18 It is not an authoritative declaration by either Rome or Canterbury but simply a joint statement by the Commission for reflection by the churches they represent. The same applies to the previous document from the United States which we have considered.

The title of this Agreed Statement, Salvation and the Church, is significant in itself and immediately draws attention to the ecumenical nature of the document. If there is to be any doctrinal agreement on the subject of justification without loss of face by either party, it would be necessary to consider it in the wider context of salvation and of the church. It is true, of course, as the document indicates, that justification is one of a whole cluster of doctrines associated with salvation. Likewise, it is not improper to study justification in the context of the church, for the church, as the statement rightly maintains, ‘is the community of those who believe in Jesus Christ and are justified through God’s grace’. However, the way in which justification is set out and dealt with results in a very inadequate treatment of the subject. A new synthesis is achieved where past differences are viewed as misunderstandings and all are really meaning much the same thing. McGrath criticises it for being ‘reluctant to address the real disagreements’ between classical Anglicans and Rome.19

The Agreed Statement is set out under four heads: ‘Salvation and Faith’, ‘Salvation and Justification’, ‘Salvation and Good Works’ and ‘The Church and Salvation’. It is striking that in only one of the sub-titles does the actual term ‘justification’ appear which conveys the impression that justification is being reduced in importance. This is confirmed when justification is made to look insignificant by being placed last in a list of ten items under the all-embracing term ‘salvation’. The Statement admits that some terms are more important that others but it refuses to regard any one term as the controlling concept. ‘They complement one another’. This effectively demotes justification from the place it occupied for the Reformers. What is more, in the Preface explaining their choice of title, the two co-chairmen write that the doctrine of justification ‘can be properly treated only within the wider context of the doctrine of salvation as a whole. This in turn has involved discussion of the role of the church in Christ’s saving work’. As Hywel Jones, the first Principal of the London Theological Seminary, has pointed out, ‘To claim that justification can only be properly treated when it is connected with all the other constituent elements of salvation on the one hand and with the church on the other is tantamount to denying that it can be properly treated by itself’ as a distinct theological entity, which is ‘obviously ridiculous’. This would be to deny the validity of former theological work in this area. Dr. Jones goes on to stress that the Bible not only treats justification within the wider context of salvation and the church but ‘In places it speaks of it as if there were no other element in salvation and as if there were no such organism/organisation as the church.20

When the Agreed Statement eventually comes to discussing what justification means, it does so in the context of sanctification. Biblical warrant for dealing with these two subjects together is said to be I Corinthians 6:11, ‘But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God’. This is quite inadmissible, because Paul there uses both sanctification and justification in a positional sense. The Christian has a sanctified as well as a justified status. That is why the Corinthian believers can be called saints.21 However, this is not how the Statement understands sanctification and the use of the biblical reference in this context only adds to the confusion. Sanctification (seen as God’s activity within a person’s life recreating and renewing) and justification (seen as God’s pronouncement of acquittal) are not ‘two aspects of the same divine act’ as the Agreed Statement suggests, although they are ‘indissolubly linked’. We shall return to this important subject in chapter eleven.

At first sight it is very encouraging to have justification described as ‘a divine declaration of acquittal’ and to be informed that ‘Instead of our own strivings to make ourselves acceptable to God, Christ’s perfect righteousness is reckoned to our account.’ This is deceptive, for the document keeps on emphasising the place of the inner divine activity of making righteous in association with justification. ‘God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous’. The result of this confusion is, as Hywel Jones puts it, ‘that our righteousness and our works become mingled with Christ’s righteousness and faith. This is fatal for the biblical doctrine of justification.’22 John Henry Newman, the Anglican clergyman who converted to Rome in the last century and was made a Cardinal, used the creative word idea to link imputed and imparted righteousness. Relying heavily on Newman, Hans Kung, the radical Roman Catholic theologian, follows the same line of argument when he writes in his work on justification, ‘Unlike the word of man, the word of God does what it signifies.’23

Turning briefly to ARCIC II’s view of the church in relation to justification, McGrath regards this section of the report as by far the weakest. It is most unacceptable to be told that salvation in all its aspects, including justification, ‘comes to each believer as he or she is incorporated into the believing community’. From the biblical perspective it is God who justifies not the church. Baptism is referred to by the Roman Catholic expression ‘the sacrament of justification’ but what that means is not spelt out. In paragraph 22 there is an oblique reference to what is involved in the Roman sacrament of penance. But Rome’s teaching on penance is not specifically considered, even though, as was seen in the last chapter, it is a vital ingredient in its understanding of justification. The associated subject of indulgences, so closely related to penance, is also ignored in this document.

Here then is an agreement on justification which marginalises the subject, merges it with sanctification and makes it dependent on the church. While it accepts the biblical meaning of justification with one breath, it takes away from it at the next. The document pinpoints four areas of difficulty: faith, justifying righteousness, good works and the role of the church in salvation. As a result of their discussions the members of the Commission are able to affirm that the above-mentioned difficulties need no longer be matters of dispute. This is ‘justification by unity’ as the heading to The Times editorial perceptively put it.24

It is sad but not surprising to find a number of influential Anglican evangelicals welcoming the Agreed Statement. Michael Baughen, former vicar of All Souls, Langham Place, London and until 1996 Bishop of Chester wrote at the time, ‘most evangelicals in the Church of England will welcome [it] with warmth’ and he recommends it for containing excellent statements about justification.25 One of the members of the Commission that produced the document is the Anglican evangelical, Julian Charley, who naturally warmly commends it. He speaks of this agreement as the result of ‘a process of convergence’ that had been taking place for some decades. He reminds readers that it is in the nature of ecumenical agreed statements that you cannot expect to get what you personally want. ‘What matters is that nothing is said or omitted that compromises your fundamental faith.’26 We believe that ARCIC II does compromise the truth concerning justification by faith alone. What is more, can one say that agreement has been reached when subjects like indulgences are ignored?

McGrath, Justification and Unity

Alister McGrath, an expert in historical theology, is an Anglican evangelical who has written many learned articles and books on justification and related themes. We have already drawn attention to his pertinent comments in the present chapter. His knowledge and grasp of the subject and of the issues involved is impressive. From his considerable output it is possible to build up a picture of his own personal preferences and beliefs on justification within the context of the ecumenical debate.

It is McGrath’s opinion that the doctrine of justification should be allowed to develop a meaning that is much broader than the biblical usage. In his two-volume history of the doctrine of justification, Iustitia Dei, he begins by making a distinction between the concept of justification as used by Paul and the doctrine of justification as formulated by the church. The concept or idea of justification, he argues, is one of many used in the Bible and particularly by Paul ‘to describe God’s saving action towards his people’. The doctrine of justification as developed by the theologians has acquired a meaning in Protestant as well as Roman theology that is ‘virtually independent of its biblical origins and concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established’.27 In another place he writes, ‘In dogmatic theology . . . the concept of justification has come to mean the restoration of man’s broken relationship with God — a meaning which is best illustrated from the brilliant Tridentine definition of the term.’28 The passage which he quotes is from chapter four of Trent’s decree on justification. It describes the justification of the sinner ‘as being a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour.’29

McGrath is right to distinguish between the Bible’s use of justification and what it came to mean for the medieval church and the Council of Trent. It would be wrong, however, to lump historical Protestant theology with that of Roman. The Reformers brought people back to the biblical and Pauline use of the term. They correctly understood it to mean God’s declaration that the guilty sinner is acquitted and judged to be in a right legal position before God and his law. Rome turned its back on this biblical position and instead, at Trent, codified the inaccurate medieval teaching which continues to lead it to accept other false and unbiblical ideas.

In his more popular book Justification by Faith: What it means to us Today, Dr. McGrath argues for the development of a doctrine of justification from the original biblical idea, in order to appeal to the needs of the present generation.30 He is encouraged to go beyond the New Testament statements on the subject by appealing to what has happened in the history of theology to the term ‘atonement’. From its more narrow biblical usage as the word for ‘reconciliation’, it has come to stand, in systematic theology, for the whole subject of what Christ accomplished through his death.

McGrath uses this illustration to expand the meaning of justification by taking on board elements associated with the Roman view. He argues that, while the biblical concept is about the removal of condemnation and the establishment of a right status and relationship with God, the doctrine can designate the whole matter of what a person must do in order to have a life-transforming encounter with God through Christ. He keeps on referring to justification as a transforming experience. ‘Justification changes us, initiating a new relationship with God that is charged with a creative power to transform us’. Or again, ‘In justification God offers to dwell within us as his temple’ and he quotes the lines from Cardinal Newman’s famous hymn, Praise to the Holiest in the Height:

      God’s presence, and his very self
      And essence all-divine

He claims, without giving any references, that both the Old and New Testaments ‘regard justification as a transformational experience’.31

With this understanding of justification he proceeds to show its contemporary significance from the ‘existential’, ‘personal’ and ‘ethical’ dimensions. In other words, justification now stands for authentic existence, ‘the abolition of our alienation from our authentic mode of existence.’32 It is about ‘the transformation and fulfilment of our persons through an encounter with the Person who underlies personality itself.’33 ‘We are made children of God through our justification as an act of free grace — and now we must act in accordance with this transformation.’34

With all due respect to Dr. McGrath, his arguments for widening the meaning of justification are unconvincing and his definitions are actually dangerous to the evangelical or gospel truth. The dedicated preacher concerned to present the truth of justification by faith in today’s world has no right to impose his own meanings onto the term in order to make it relevant. Biblical terms are not like pieces of plastic that can be made to bend at will to suit a particular need. McGrath reasons that the Reformers, in proclaiming the doctrine of justification in legal terms, were drawing upon the ‘experiences, hopes, and fears of their own day and age.’ The doctrine of justification, he states, must be ‘liberated’ from ‘the forms of theological expression used in the sixteenth century’.35

On the contrary, in using legal terminology the Reformers were being more faithful to Paul than medieval or modern scholarship. McGrath, one feels, has also been too much influenced by the latest trends in Pauline scholarship which see justification in relational rather than legal terms.36 What is more, his argument that a term like ‘justification’ should be allowed to evolve in a way similar to the word ‘atonement’ is not sound. ‘Justification’, unlike the word ‘atonement’, has already had a long history of fierce debate in the church over its precise meaning. It must also be pointed out that there is a biblical doctrine of justification not merely a biblical concept. We need to preach this biblical doctrine in as pure a way as we can, working hard at showing its relevance and importance without compromising its meaning.

McGrath’s definition of justification using transformational language reminds us of Rome’s position. He has, as we have seen above, described the Council of Trent’s definition of justification as ‘brilliant’. In an article in the Evangelical Quarterly he presents a definition that is very similar. His doctrine of justification as distinct from the Pauline doctrine is put in these terms: ‘We are dealing with the turning of the godless man against his godlessness; with his transformation from man without God to man with God, for God, and before God; with his transition from homo peccator [sinful man] to homo iustus [righteous man]; with his transition from nature to grace.’37 As a statement concerning conversion the definition is fine and cannot be faulted, but as a definition of justification it is unbiblical and agreeable to Rome. It merges regeneration, justification and sanctification and opens the door to all the disagreeable features of Rome’s religion.

As he draws attention to the strengths and weaknesses of both the Lutheran-Roman Catholic and the Anglican-Roman Catholic statements of agreement, McGrath’s sympathies lie clearly with the former document. This is so not only because it treats the subject in a more detailed and scholarly fashion and does not, like ARCIC II, gloss over the difficulties, but because it takes an existential approach to theological truth. ARCIC II, on the other hand, is criticized for its propositional approach.

In the Lutheran-Roman statement, Protestant and Roman views of justification are recognised as contradictory at a propositional level, but accepted as complementary at an existential level. In other words, the Protestant view of an imputed righteousness and the opposing Roman view of an imparted righteousness are affirming in their own separate ways that ‘it is God in Christ alone whom believers ultimately trust’.38 ARCIC II, however, in gently conceding that the Reformers were correct on the forensic meaning of the verb ‘to justify’, puts itself on a collision course with Trent. The previous document avoids such confrontation. It does not say one is right and the other wrong. Neither does it underestimate the differences or speak of accepting the two contradictory statements as saying the same thing, which, clearly, they are not at the propositional level. What the document does is to look beyond what each opposing view is saying (at the propositional level) for a more basic insight common to both (at the existential level). The heart of the division between Rome and the Reformers is thus resolved by suggesting that both positions are legitimate ways of drawing attention to the same essential idea of God’s saving work in Christ. This is the approach which McGrath seems to favour in order to get agreement on justification. Whichever view is more faithful to Scripture is not the final concern. The basic idea is the same: ‘something happens that initiates a creative encounter’ through which a person is forgiven and renewed.39

A noticeable anti-propositional attitude has begun to creep into modern evangelicalism. Anthony Thiselton, for instance, goes so far as to regard ‘propositional’ as an unfortunate term which ‘I would like to see banned from discussion as a chameleon word’.40 If this is the case, then it would mean, as Christopher Bennett crisply puts it, ‘the death of proper doctrinal definition, discussion and debate’.41 If we cannot speak in propositional terms then it means we cannot define anything or say that anything is wrong. We are back with Alice in Wonderland and any statement can mean what you want it to mean.

McGrath’s opinion of the World Council of Churches as a ‘discredited and outmoded’ organization is not an indication that he has no time for ecumenism. That will be obvious from what has already been said. His sympathies lie, however, with the more ‘unofficial’ efforts. He reports on the increasing numbers of individual Roman Catholics who ‘are being drawn to evangelicalism while generally remaining publicly loyal to their church.’42 He expects this ‘unofficial’ ecumenism to grow in extent and influence and, although he is careful to add that he is merely reporting not defending or criticising, he seems to favour evangelicals and Roman Catholics joining ranks. He writes, ‘Whatever the differences between evangelicals and Catholics may be — and these differences should neither be denied nor underplayed — the possibility that the two groups could form a coalition working for doctrinal orthodoxy and moral renewal at every level of society is inviting.

Concerning his own views on unity with Rome, Dr. McGrath is very careful not to give too much away. However, his desire to see justification develop a meaning which goes beyond the biblical usage certainly leads him to look favourably at those who search for a basic idea common to both Protestant and Roman positions on justification. The trouble is that the preciseness of the biblical teaching on the subject, so clearly perceived by the Reformers, is in danger of being lost. This is something which cannot be allowed to happen: the essence of the gospel is at stake. We need to be on our guard lest some from a new generation of evangelical scholars, who are highly respected and doubtless with the best of motives, should imperceptibly move us away from the biblical doctrine of justification rediscovered by the Reformers.


  1. The statement is published by R. J. Neuhaus’ New York City-based organization, ‘Religion and Public Life’. A critical review of the statement is found in the Modern Reformation magazine published by ‘Christians United for Reformation’.
  2. Cf. Christianity Today, March 6, 1995, pp. 52-53, ‘Evangelicals Clarify Accord with Catholics’.
  3. ibid. p. 53.
  4. Cf. Christianity Today, December 12, 1994, pp. 34f.
  5. K. S. Kantzer, ‘Should Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Join Ranks?’, Christianity Today, July 18, 1994, p. 17.
  6. Cf. J. Armstrong (editor), Roman Catholicism, Moody, 1994, pp. 220-222. Also P. Madrid (editor), Surprised by Truth: Eleven Converts give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for becoming Catholic, Basilica Press, 1994.
  7. Cf. J. H. Gerstner, ‘Rome NOT Home’, in Justification by Faith Alone (editor D. Kistler), Soli Deo Gloria, 1995, pp. 176-177, 182 concerning Scott Hahn a former Presbyterian educated at Gordon-Conwell who has defected to Rome.
  8. J. Armstrong, Roman Catholicism, p. 317.
  9. Quoted in Christianity Today, May 16, 1994, ‘Interfaith Accord. Evangelicals, Catholics Pursue New Cooperation.’
  10. Cf. Christianity Today, November 14, 1994, p. 136, ‘Why Catholics are Allies’.
  11. Christianity Today, December 12, 1994, p. 37.
  12. Justification by Faith. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, Augsburg Publishing House, 1985.
  13. ibid. p. 49.
  14. ibid. p. 16.
  15. ibid. p. 72.
  16. A. E. McGrath, ARCIC II and Justification: an Evangelical Anglican Assessment of ‘Salvation and the Church’, Latimer Studies 26, 1987, p. 34; ‘What shall we make of Ecumenism?’, in J. Armstrong, Roman Catholicism, p. 207.
  17. Latimer Studies, p. 35.
  18. Salvation and the Church: An Agreed Statement by the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Catholic Truth Society and Church House Publishing, 1987.
  19. Latimer Studies, p. 44.
  20. H. R. Jones in Evangel, Summer 1987, ‘Five Views of ARCIC II’, p. 15.
  21. Cf. D. Peterson, Possessed By God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness, Apollos/IVP, 1995, pp. 40-47.
  22. H. R. Jones, Gospel and Church, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1989, p. 99.
    In another agreed Common Statement (1995), this time between representatives of the Anglican and Lutheran churches across northern Europe, the following confession is made: ‘We share a common understanding of God’s justifying grace, i.e. that we are accounted righteous and are made righteous before God only by grace through faith because of the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and not on account of our works or merits. . . .’ What We Agree In Faith, para. 32c quoted in Ecumenical Digest, Summer 1995, British Evangelical Council. Here again, justification and sanctification are merged.
  23. J. H. Newman, Lectures on Justification, Longmans & Green, 1874, pp. 87-89, 109-111; H. Kung, Justification, Burns & Oats, 1981, pp. 212-213.
  24. Quoted by H. R. Jones, Gospel and Church, p. 102.
  25. The Times, March 21, 1987.
  26. J. Charley, Evangel, Summer 1987, ‘Five Views of ARCIC II’, pp. 9, 11.
  27. A. E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: a history of the Christian doctrine of justification, Vol.1, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 2-3.
  28. A. McGrath, ‘The Article by which the Church stands or falls’, Evangelical Quarterly Vol.58, p. 211.
  29. ‘Canons arid Decrees of the Council of Trent’, Sixth Session, chapter IV, in Creeds of the Church, J. H. Leith (editor), pp. 409-410.
  30. A. E. McGrath, Justification by Faith. What it means to us today, Academie/Zondervan, 1988, pp. 10-17.
  31. ibid. pp. 142-147; cf. also McGrath in the Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 58, p.211.
  32. McGrath, Justification by Faith, p. 92.
  33. ibid. p. 113.
  34. ibid. p. 117.
  35. ibid. p. 10-12.
  36. Cf. ‘Righteousness, Righteousness of God’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, D. G. Reid (editors), IVP, 1993, pp. 834-837. Also D. Moody, The Word of Truth, Eerdmans, 1981, pp. 325-328. ‘A return to biblical exegesis requires a translation that denotes relationship rather than legalistic declaration’ p. 326
  37. McGrath in the Evangelical Quarterly Vol.58, p. 211; also cf. Iustitia Dei: p. 2.
  38. Justification by Faith. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, §158, p. 72.
  39. Latimer Studies 26, p. 142.
  40. A. C. Thiselton, ‘Authority and Hermeneutics: Some Proposals for a More Creative Agenda’ in A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, eds. P. E. Satterthwaite and D. F. Wright, Eerdmans, 1994.
  41. C. J. L. Bennett, ‘Justification and ARCIC II’ in The Banner of Truth 297, June 1988, p. 11.
  42. A. McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, Hodder & Stoughton, 1994, p. 182.
  43. Christianity Today, Dec. 1994, p. 33.


A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.

Return to the Main Highway

Table of Contents

Return to Calvinism and the Reformed Faith


:-) <——