Philip Eveson


The uneasy peace that existed in the western church of the sixteenth century was shattered by a monk who was prepared to defy the pope and the emperor. At the heart of Martin Luther’s rebellion was a spiritual transformation which arose out of his appreciation of the biblical truth that God justifies the ungodly, not by their good works but solely through reliance on Jesus Christ. From then on, the truth concerning justification by faith dominated his thinking. If the other Reformers were not as vocal as Luther on this crucial issue, it was not because they did not consider it to be of central importance. John Calvin, for instance, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, devotes more space to justification than to almost any other doctrine.1 As he introduces the subject he reminds his readers that ‘this is the main hinge on which religion turns’ and therefore ‘we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of this judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.’2

Early Protestant Statements

The great Protestant Confessions of Faith and Catechisms that arose during the sixteenth century are one in drawing attention to this fundamental gospel truth. Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 on justification reads:

‘Also they teach that men cannot be justified [obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness] before God by their own powers, merits, or works; but are justified freely [of grace] for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favour, and their sins forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death hath satisfied for our sins. This faith doth God impute for righteousness before him.’ (The brackets are original)

Good works are treated in great detail in Article 20 where, again, it is stressed that ‘our works cannot reconcile God, or deserve remission of sins, grace, and justification at his hands, but that these we obtain by faith only, when we believe that we are received into favour for Christ’s sake, who alone is appointed the Mediator and Propitiatory, by whom the Father is reconciled.’3

The French Confession of Faith of 1559 includes this statement in Article 18:

‘We therefore reject all other means of justification before God, and without claiming any virtue or merit, we rest simply in the obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us as much to blot out all our sins as to make us find grace and favour in the sight of God.’4

Article 11 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1571) is based on similar words found in the earlier Forty-Two Articles of 1553. It reads:

‘We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort . . .’ Its closing words refer to the Homily on Justification (or ‘Salvation’ as it is later called) for a larger treatment of the subject.5

Question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks: ‘How art thou righteous before God?

Answer. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.’6

The Second Helvetic Confession, a revision of Bullinger’s confession, was approved by the Swiss Reformed cities in 1566. In chapter 15 a full statement ‘of the true justification of the faithful’ is given. ‘To justify . . . does signify to remit sins, to absolve from the fault and the punishment thereof, to receive into favour, to pronounce a man just . . . But we are justified — that is, acquitted from sin and death — by God the Judge, through the grace of Christ alone, and not by any respect or merit of ours . . . God, therefore, is merciful unto our sins for Christ alone, that suffered and rose again, and does not impute them unto us. But he imputes the justice of Christ unto us for our own; so that now we are not only cleansed from sin, and purged, and holy, but also endued with the righteousness of Christ . . . it is God alone that justifieth us, and that only for Christ, by not imputing unto us our sins, but imputing Christ’s righteousness unto us.’7

The Medieval Church

How a person could be right with God was a matter of great concern to Luther. The church of his day was in confusion over the issue. There was much talk among the theologians about grace and about God’s initiative in salvation. To the ordinary churchgoer, however, salvation was seen to be very much in the hands of the church to dispense and something that a person could earn through doing various good works. This was not a case of popular piety being at odds with the church authorities. From pope to parish priest such opinions were encouraged for they helped swell the papal coffers and provided local clergy with added income. Prayers and masses for the dead on payment of a fee were believed to reduce the amount of time needed to be purified from all sin. In England, Cardinal Wolsey promised ‘one hundred days of pardon releasing of penance in Purgatory’ to anyone who contributed towards the rebuilding of the church at Rickmansworth.8 A plenary indulgence bought from the pope would, so it was claimed, release a soul from the fires of purgatory, a place more feared than hell. Souls languished there, according to Thomas More, ‘sleepless, restless, burning and broiling in the dark fire one long night of many days, of many weeks and some of many years . . .’ and they cry out to the living for more prayers and masses to be said.9 These, along with the benefits of making pilgrimages to sacred sites, were the more obvious and glaring indications that the church preached a religion of works.

In addition, the whole sacramental system, which the church performed for its members from the cradle to the grave, gave the impression that only by participating in these rites and ceremonies could a person ever be finally accepted by God. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the Council of Florence, 1438-1445, not only emphasised the power of the priest but the power of the sacraments and good works for gaining acceptance before God. ‘Not only virgins and those practising continence merit the attainment of eternal blessedness but married persons also, who are acceptable to God through true faith and good works.’ ‘Through baptism we are spiritually reborn; through confirmation we grow in grace and are strengthened in faith . . . we are sustained by the divine food of the eucharist. But if we become sick in soul through sin, we are healed spiritually through penance, and healed spiritually as well as physically . . . through extreme unction.’10

The Reformers

The Reformers, on the other hand, stressed from the Bible that human beings were quite incapable of doing anything toward their salvation. Salvation is God’s work, the result of God’s unmerited favour. The views of such men as Luther and Calvin on the subject of justification can be itemized in the following way:

1 Justification is a legal declaration made by God that believing sinners are righteous. ‘Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as righteous men. And that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.’11 It is a pronouncement concerning their right standing before God. The Reformers correctly understood the verb ‘to justify’ to mean ‘to declare righteous’ and not ‘to make righteous’ as Augustine of Hippo and the medieval Schoolmen supposed. Outside of Christ sinners are guilty, but in Christ they are declared righteous. A definite distinction was made between justification on the one hand and regeneration and sanctification on the other. This was a clear departure from the teaching of Augustine and the medieval church, who regarded justification as an all-embracing concept.12 Though the Reformers showed that the initial inward change of regeneration with which repentance and faith are associated and the on-going process of renewal and development in righteous living to which sanctification refers are intimately linked to justification, they insisted that this sanctification work should never be confused with it.13 It is guilty sinners whom God pardons and pronounces righteous, immediately they trust Christ.

2 This new legal status which sinners have in Christ is due entirely to the work of Christ. It is not Christ plus any righteousness which God may find sinners or saints performing. They are declared righteous solely on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, whereby all their sins were imputed to Christ who fully satisfied divine justice, and Christ’s spotless righteousness imputed to them. Thus Calvin wrote, ‘The Son of God, utterly clean of all fault, nevertheless took upon himself the shame and reproach of our iniquities, and in return clothed us with his purity.’14 Luther expressed it so beautifully in these words:

Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not.15

3 The Reformers also stressed that it is through faith in Jesus Christ that sinners are justified. For them, saving faith is not merely the faith of assent to the facts of the gospel or a willingness to accept what the church believes, but a personal reliance on the Lord Jesus Christ. Justification, however, is not based on faith. It is based on Christ and received through faith. Luther was also quick to emphasise that it is through faith alone that sinners are declared righteous. He was, and still is, criticised for adding ‘alone’ to his German New Testament translation of Romans 3.28. His reply was to the effect that the sense of the passage demanded it. Both he and Calvin point out that, in the very same part of Romans, Paul goes on to stress that works do not justify. If it is not faith plus works that justifies then it must be by faith alone.16

4 Although the Reformers stressed that good works have no part to play in justification, they did show how important these were in the life of the believer. They insisted, however, that the good works of believers are not meritorious but are the fruit and signs of justification. They do not merit salvation; they do not help to gain final acceptance on the day of judgement.17 In fact, Calvin says, ‘we have not a single work going forth from the saints that if it be judged in itself deserves not shame as its just reward’. ‘Let a holy servant of God, I say, choose from the whole course of his life what of an especially noteworthy character he thinks he has done . . . Undoubtedly he will somewhere perceive that it savors of the rottenness of the flesh.’18

5 Because the Reformers looked to Jesus Christ alone they could be assured that they were accepted by God. Christian assurance is not confidence in oneself and one’s own abilities: it comes from relying entirely on the grace of God in Christ. Already the Christian has passed from death to life and will not be condemned. Such assurance is most noticeable in the wording of the wills that people from all classes of society made prior to death. Those who still clung to the old religion of the pope committed their souls not only to God but to Mary and the saints, and requested that prayers and masses be said for their souls to bring a speedy end to their time in purgatory. Money was often left for this specific purpose. On the other hand, those who embraced the gospel of justification by faith alone expressed absolute certainty in Christ and his death to save them. In London, the famous English chronicler Edward Hall, wrote out his will in 1546, yielding his soul to its ‘maker and redeemer by whose passion, and not by my deserts, I trust only to be saved, for He hath washed away my sins, I doubt not, by His precious blood’.19

In summary, the teaching of the Reformers emphasised that a person is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God’s glory alone. By insisting on these points, they had not invented a new doctrine but rediscovered an old truth. The Reformers went back to the Bible for their understanding of this as they did for other matters of faith and practice.

Not a New Teaching

In his masterly treatment of justification James Buchanan staunchly defends the Protestant position against the Roman allegation that it was unknown for fourteen hundred years and was a new thing introduced for the first time by Luther and Calvin. He shows that the doctrine of justification ‘was so thoroughly discussed in the writings of the Apostles . . . that their immediate successors had no occasion to treat it as an undecided question . . . They found it an established and unquestioned article of the common faith, and they assumed and applied it in their writings, without thinking it necessary to enter into any formal explanation or proof of it.’20 Alister McGrath in his history of the subject states that ‘For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate (undeveloped) and ill-defined. There had never been a serious controversy over the matter’.21 At this time the attention of the church was directed toward other important elements of the faith that were being denied, which resulted in the great Christological and Trinitarian debates and creeds.

The following examples show that after the Apostolic period, there were those in the church who continued to hold a biblical view of justification. In his Letter to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome writes concerning the patriarchs that ‘they all therefore were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous doing which they wrought, but through His will. And so we, having being called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’22

From about the middle of the second century A.D. we have the Letter to Diognetus in which the author expresses the amazing kindness and love of God in the gospel. God planned everything with his Son and at the right moment showed his goodness and power. ‘He hated us not, neither rejected us, nor bore us malice, but was longsuffering and patient, and in pity for us took upon Himself our sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy for the lawless, the guileless for the evil, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but His righteousness would have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us lawless and ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the Son of God? O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and the righteousness of One should justify many that are iniquitous!’23

There is, however, evidence from a very early date that the biblical truth concerning justification was obscured and false ideas entered which gained momentum as the medieval period advanced. T. F Torrance has shown that many of the early Christian writers, as witnessed for instance in the Didache, Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and Ignatius, did not adequately appreciate the significance of God’s grace. He concludes that ‘religion was thought of primarily in terms of man’s acts towards God, in the striving towards justification, much less in terms of God’s acts for man which put him right with God once and for all.’24

On the other hand, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) dealt a thorough blow to Pelagianism by emphasising the absolute sovereignty of God, human bondage to sin, the grace of God toward helpless sinners and by insisting that justification is the result of God’s grace not man’s merits. However, because he interpreted the verb ‘to justify’ in his Latin Bible as ‘to make righteous’ this led him to believe that justification meant that God made us inwardly righteous. Throughout the medieval period justification was thus always associated with the inner transformation of the individual. Even so, there were theologians and preachers who, although they adopted teachings and practices which were not biblical, continued ‘to hold the truth in substance, and in a state of comparative purity, as contrasted with its subsequent corruption’ by scholastic theology.25

Jerome (c. 347-420), for instance, in his comments on Paul’s letters to the Romans and 2 Corinthians, remarks that, ‘When an ungodly man is converted, God justifies him through faith alone, not on account of good works, which he possessed not; otherwise, on account of his ungodly deeds, he ought to have been punished.. .Christ, who “knew no sin”, the Father “made sin for us,” that, as a victim offered for sin was in the Law called “sin”, so likewise Christ, being offered for our sins, received the name of “sin”, that “we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” — not our righteousness, nor in ourselves.’26

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), despite his misguided support of the Crusades and his Mariolatry, has this to say, ‘What can all our righteousness be before God? Shall it not, according to the prophet, be viewed as “a filthy rag”; and if it is strictly judged, shall not all our righteousness turn out to be mere unrighteousness and deficiency? What, then, shall it be concerning our sins, when not even our righteousness can answer for itself? Wherefore, exclaiming vehemently with the prophet, “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord!” let us flee, with all humility, to mercy, which alone can save our souls . . . Whosoever, feeling compunction for his sins, hungers and thirsts after righteousness, let him believe in Thee, who “justifiest the ungodly”; and thus, being justified by faith alone, he shall have peace with God . . . Thy Passion is the last refuge, the alone remedy. When wisdom fails, when righteousness is insufficient, when the merits of holiness succumb, it succours us.’27

The 12th century Bible scholar, Herveus, commenting on Hebrews 10:38, speaks in God’s name and says, ‘and every just one of mine is justified by faith, not by the works of the law. For he who is justified by the works of the law is not mine, but his own just person, because he is justified not by me but by himself, and he glories not in me but in himself. But he who is justified by faith is my just one, because he is justified by the gift of my grace, and he attributes the fact that he is justified to my grace and not to himself.’28

It is clear from the Bible and the early period of the church that the Reformers, in insisting on justification by faith alone, were not presenting a new teaching. Nevertheless, just as there was a time for systematising the Bible’s teaching on the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity due to error and heresy, so the Reformation was the period for rediscovering and clarifying the biblical understanding of justification. As a result, there has been a large measure of unanimity among the main Protestant churches in their definition of justification.

Later Protestant Confessions

The Anglican position is set out in the Thirty-Nine Articles which has been quoted above, and they refer to the fuller presentation of the subject in the Homily of Salvation. The Wesleyan Methodists of the 18th century accepted the Thirty-nine Articles and further light was thrown on the subject through the sermons and hymns of the Wesley brothers.29 The Savoy Declaration of 1658 (Congregational), the Baptist Confession of 1689 and the 1823 Calvinistic Methodist (or Presbyterian Church of Wales) Confession of Faith, all contain a full statement of the subject, closely following the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith which was first adopted by the Presbyterians in 1649. It is worth quoting the first two paragraphs of this latter document:

‘Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.’30

Evangelical Hymns

The hymns of the Protestant churches also draw attention to this evangelical faith. Martin Luther’s hymn ‘From deep distress I cry to Thee’, based on Psalm 130, has these lines:

      Our pardon is Thy gift; Thy love
      And grace alone avail us;
      Our works could ne’er our guilt remove,
      The strictest life would fail us;
      That none may boast himself of aught,
      But own in fear Thy grace hath wrought
      What in him seemeth righteous.
      And thus my hope is in the Lord
      And not in mine own merit;...

From the Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century comes Charles Wesley’s famous hymn ‘And can it be’ which includes the verse:

      No condemnation now I dread;
      Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
      Alive in Him, my living Head,
      And clothed in righteousness divine,
      Bold I approach the eternal throne,
      And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The following hymn was used extensively both in the Church of England and Nonconformist chapels when it was first composed by Augustus Toplady:

      A debtor to mercy alone,
      Of covenant mercy I sing;
      Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on,
      My person and offering to bring;
      The terrors of law and of God
      With me can have nothing to do;
      My Saviour’s obedience and blood
      Hide all my transgressions from view.

Horatius Bonar, ‘the Prince of Scottish hymn writers’, also emphasises the truth of justification in his hymn ‘Thy works not mine, O Christ’, from which these lines are taken:

      Thy righteousness, O Christ,
      Alone can cover me;
      No righteousness avails
      Save that which is of Thee:
      To whom save Thee, who canst alone
      For sin atone, Lord, shall I flee?
      This is the evangelical Protestant position.

English Reformers, Puritans and Methodists

William Tyndale, the English Bible translator, set out his view on justification in The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528): ‘That faith only before all works and without all merits, but Christ’s only, justifieth and setteth us at peace with God, is proved by Paul in the first chapter to the Romans’.32 In The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528) he writes, ‘I say that no man is so great a sinner, if he repent and believe, but that he is righteous in Christ and in the promises’.33 Bishop Hugh Latimer, burnt in 1555 under the reign of Queen Mary, in a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer encourages, believers not to let their sins keep them from praying. ‘Our Saviour maketh them nothing: when we believe in him, it is like as if we had no sins. For he changeth with us: he taketh our sins and wickedness from us, and giveth unto us his holiness, righteousness, justice, fulfilling of the law, and so, consequently, everlasting life: so that we be like as if we had done no sin at all; for his righteousness standeth us in so good stead, as though we of our own selves had fulfilled the law to the uttermost. Therefore our sins cannot let us, nor withdraw us from prayer: for they be gone; they are no sins; they cannot be hurtful unto us. Christ dying for us, as all the scripture, both of the new and old Testament, witnesseth . . . “He hath taken away our sorrows.”’34

The Puritan preachers and writers from the end of the sixteenth and on into the seventeenth century laid great emphasis on the subject. A whole volume of John Owen’s works is given over to expounding it in great detail.35 In the eighteenth century the most outstanding preacher of the day in England was George Whitefield. In one of his sermons on justification, The Lord our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6) we can sense the passion and earnestness of his preaching: ‘And think you, O sinners, that you will be able to stand in the day of judgment, if Christ be not your righteousness! No, that alone is the wedding-garment in which you must appear. O Christless sinners, I am distressed for you! the desires of my soul are enlarged. O that this may be an accepted time! that the Lord may be your righteousness! For whither would you flee, if death should find you naked? Indeed, there is no hiding yourselves from his presence. The pitiful fig-leaves of your own righteousness will not cover your nakedness, when God shall call you to stand before him. Adam found them ineffectual, and so will you. O think of death! O think of judgment! Yet a little while, and time shall be no more; and then what will become of you, if the Lord be not your righteousness.’36

Thus the Confessions of Faith and the doctrinal statements of the mainline Protestant denominations bear witness to the biblical teaching on justification as rediscovered by the Reformers of the sixteenth century. The writings of the Puritans in the seventeenth century and the preaching of the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening in the eighteenth century also testify to their grasp of this important subject and their desire to make it known to the people. In addition, through the hymns of Luther, Watts, Wesley and others, the people were taught to express in song and as a part of worship the wonderful truth of justification by faith alone.

19th and 20th Century Evangelical Protestants

From the nineteenth century we have this comment on Romans 3:25 by Principal David Brown (1803-1897), one of the most brilliant theologians Scotland has ever produced: ‘Glorious paradox! “Just in punishing,” and “merciful in pardoning,” men can understand; but “just in justifying” the guilty, startles them. But the propitiation through faith in Christ’s blood resolves the paradox, and harmonizes the seemingly discordant elements. For in that “God hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin,” justice has full satisfaction; and in that “we are made the righteousness of God in Him,” mercy has all her desire.’37

During the latter half of the same century on London’s South Bank, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) constantly preached justification by faith alone. In 1857 at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens, the young preacher told his large congregation, ‘Christ takes our sins, we take Christ’s righteousness; and it is by a glorious substitution and interchange of places that sinners go free and are justified by his grace. “But,” says one, “no one is justified like that, till he dies.” Believe me, he is. . . . If that young man over there has really believed in Christ this morning . . . he is as much justified in God’s sight now as he will be when he stands before the throne.’38

Turning finally to the twentieth century, there have been well-known evangelical commentators, theologians and preachers who have all expressed the truth concerning justification in the traditional Protestant sense. John Murray in his treatment of justification points out: ‘We thus see that if we are to find the righteousness which supplies the basis of the full and perfect justification which God bestows upon the ungodly we cannot find it in anything that resides in us, not in anything which God does in us, nor in anything which we do. We must look away from ourselves to something which is of an entirely different sort in an entirely different direction.. .It is in Christ we are justified.’39

In summing up Paul’s doctrine of justification, Herman Ridderbos regards it as ‘an imposing and carefully integrated whole’. The righteousness of God ‘is revealed in the great redemptive event of Christ’s death and resurrection, in which God as Judge has manifested his righteousness, both judging and acquitting. And as the redemptive gift of God, it is given to those who are in Christ by faith. It consists for them, therefore, in imputation by grace, as a free gift, and not in the accounting of man’s own works as merit. In that sense it can be said that faith is reckoned for righteousness, namely, as the means, on the ground of the obedience and righteous act of the One, to come to justification unto life and to peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1, 18, 19).’40

The truth concerning justification is expressed by J. I. Packer in these words: ‘Justification has two sides. On the one hand, it means the pardon, remission, and non-imputation of all sins, reconciliation to God, and the end of his enmity and wrath . . . On the other hand, it means the bestowal of a righteous man’s status and a title to all the blessings promised to the just: a thought which Paul amplifies by linking justification with the adoption of believers as God’s sons and heirs.’41

Two sentences from more recent evangelical scholarly expositions of Romans express the matter succinctly. First of all, there is this statement from John Stott: ‘Justification (its source God and his grace, its ground Christ and his cross, and its means faith alone, altogether apart from works) is the heart of the gospel and unique to Christianity.’42 Then Douglas Moo makes this apt comment: ‘While justification effects for the believer a new and permanent status, justification itself is a once-for-all act by which God acquits the sinner.’43

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones consistently preached justification by faith alone throughout his long ministry at Westminster Chapel, London. Towards the close of his sermon on Philippians 3:9 these words ring out, ‘If I am in Christ, God regards me as guiltless; not only that, God regards me as one who has kept the law fully. Christ has kept it and I am in Christ. I receive all the benefits of his perfect life and atoning death exactly as I am. That is the doctrine: “Just as I am without one plea” — with nothing, nothing at all, indeed to start to do anything is a denial of the doctrine. You can do nothing, Christ has done everything . . . We must realise that if we lived to be a thousand years old we would be no more righteous in the sight of God then than we are now. You may grow in grace, but on your death bed your only hope will be the righteousness of Christ.44


The traditional evangelical Protestant position on the subject of justification is thus quite clear. Every human being is a sinner. Jews and Gentiles alike are sinners. They are in rebellion against God and have broken the law which reveals God’s righteous character. By that righteous standard they are guilty and condemned, and will be sentenced by the divine Judge on the final day of judgment. No one on the basis of their works belongs to the class of the righteous. Being righteous himself, God cannot be expected, then, to justify sinners. Yet despite this, the amazing truth revealed in the gospel is that God has provided a way to justify sinners that meets his own righteous requirements. God’s justifying action is his declaration that the guilty sinner is acquitted, pronounced not guilty, given a full pardon, and judged to be in a right standing and relationship before God and his law.

This astounding judgment is made on account of Christ’s representative activity on behalf of sinners. He lived the righteous life, kept all the covenant demands and endured the covenant curse as the federal head of a new righteous humanity. The righteous are those sinners who realise their own poverty and need, and who rely entirely on Christ as their Saviour and are united to him. Jesus has satisfied the divine wrath on account of their sins and his guiltless, righteous life is reckoned or imputed to them. They are no longer under condemnation and are assured that on the day of judgment they will be vindicated and blessed for ever. It is through faith alone that they are justified. Their faith in Christ is not regarded as a meritorious work, but as the means whereby they embrace his person and work. In the matter of justification, faith is the empty hand which receives Christ and his righteousness. That faith through which alone they are justified nevertheless produces the good works which God has prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10). Such works contribute nothing to their justification but show the genuineness of their professed faith.


  1. Cf. W. Stanford Reid, ‘Justification by faith according to John Calvin’, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XLII, Spring 1980, No.2, pp. 290-307.
  2. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, chapter xi, para. 1. (Battles edition, Westminster Press, Vol. 1, p. 726).
  3. P. Schaff, revised by D. S. Schaff, ‘The Evangelical Protestant Creeds’, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III, Baker reprint, 1983, pp. 10,20.
  4. Schaff p. 370. For the view that in this French confession ‘justification is nothing more than pardon’, cf. A. Clifford in Evangelical Quarterly vol.58, No.3, July 1986 pp. 195-206, ‘John Calvin and the Confessio Fidei Gallicana’. That Calvin himself regarded justification as more than forgiveness is clear from the quotations from the Institutes presented in this chapter. Though the early Reformers do not refer to the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ obedience of Christ imputed to the believer they do believe in the concept. Compare also the quotations from Luther and Latimer.
  5. G. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation, James Clarke, 1994, p. 291.
  6. Schaff, Creeds, p. 326f.
  7. Schaff pp. 862-864.
  8. Quoted by Susan Brigden, London and the Reformation, Oxford, p. 31f.
  9. Thomas More, The Supplication of Souls, 1529; quoted by A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, Batsford, 1964, p. 5f.
  10. J. H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, John Knox Press, revised 1973, pp. 56-61.
  11. Calvin, Institutes, Bk 3, ch. xi, para. 2. (Battles Vol. 1, p. 727).
  12. Cf. A. McGrath, lustitia Dei, Vol.1, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 31ff.
  13. Calvin, Institutes, ch. xi, para. 15. (Battles, Vol.1, pp. 745-6).
  14. Calvin, Institutes, Bk.2, ch. xvi, para.6 (Battles, Vol.1, p. 510).
  15. Luther’s Works, Vol.48, Letters I, Fortress Press, 1963, pp. 12f.
  16. Calvin, Institutes, Bk.3, ch.xi, para. 19. (Battles, Vol.1, pp. 748f.)
  17. ibid. ch. xiv, para.20.
  18. ibid. ch. xiv, para.9.
  19. Quoted by Bridgen, London and the Reformation, p. 381.
  20. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, Banner of Truth, 1961, p. 97.
  21. McGrath, lustitia Dei, p. 23.
  22. Clement of Rome ‘To the Corinthians’, para. 32, J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Baker Books, 1956, p. 26.
  23. The Epistle to Diognetus, para. 9, Lightfoot, p. 256-7.
  24. T. F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, Oliver & Boyd, 1948, p. 133. Cf. P. E. Hughes, ‘Justification by Faith: Distortions of the Doctrine’, Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. 24, No.2, 1952, pp. 78-90.
  25. Buchanan, p. 111-112. For the views of Augustine and Pelagius cf. A. E. McGrath, Justification by Faith: What it means for us today, Zondervan, 1988, pp. 33-45. Cf. also C. P. Bammel, ‘Justification by Faith in Augustine and Origen’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 47 No. 2, April 1996, Pp. 223-235.
  26. Buchanan, p. 109.
  27. 27. Buchanan, pp. 110-111.
  28. Quoted by P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Eerdmans, 1977, p. 436 (from Patrologia Latina, ed. By J. P. Milgne, 217 vols., 1844-1855).
  29. Though John Wesley had reservations concerning the doctrine of imputed righteousness, due to his fear of antinomianism, and did not teach it, his followers certainly sang it! ‘In Him complete we shine; His death, His life, is mine; Fully am I justified, Free from sin, and more than free, Guiltless, since for me He died; Righteous, since He lived for me.’ Quoted by Buchanan, p. 194.
  30. Chapter XI. Of Justification.
  31. Translated by Catherine Winkworth. These and the other lines from hymns are taken from Christian Hymns, Evangelical Movement of Wales, 1977.
  32. Tyndale’s Doctrinal Treatises, Parker Society, Cambridge, 1848, p. 46f.
  33. Tyndale’s Doctrinal Treatises, P. 198. For further discussion of Tyndale, cf. M. E. Dever, ‘William Tyndale and Justification by Faith: “Answer to Sir Thomas More”, in Building on a Sure Foundation, Westminster Conference Papers, 1994, pp. 7-34; C. R. Trueman, Luther’s Legacy, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1994, pp. 92-94.
  34. Sermons of Hugh Latimer, Parker Society, Cambridge, 1844, p. 330.
  35. Owen’s Works, Vol. 5, Banner of Truth reprint. For a study of justification and the Puritans cf. J. I. Packer, ‘The Doctrine of Justification in Development and Decline among the Puritans’ in Among God’s Giants, Kingsway, 1991, pp. 196-214.
  36. Select Sermons of George Whitefield, Banner of Truth, 1958, p. 134.
  37. D. Brown, Romans, Handbooks for Bible Classes and Private Students, eds. A. Whyte & J. Kelman, T. & T. Clark, P. 37.
  38. Spurgeon, New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. 3, 1857, Banner of Truth reprint, p. 157.
  39. J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Banner of Truth, 1961, P. 126.
  40. H. N. Ridderbos, Paul: an outline of his theology, Eerdmans, 1975, p. 178.
  41. J. I. Packer, ‘Justification’ in W. A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Marshall Pickering, 1985, p. 594.
  42. J. R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, IVP, 1986, p. 190; The Message of Romans (The Bible speaks Today), IVP, 1994, P. 118.
  43. D. J. Moo, Romans 1-8, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, Moody, 1991, p. 306.
  44. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Peace, Studies in Philippians 3 and 4, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, P. 66


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.

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