In my last blog, The Monster of Uncertainty, we saw that Martin Luther came to the place of certainty in his faith by acknowledging that his salvation was based upon the completed work of Jesus Christ and not upon any meritorious good works of his own. The Roman Catholic Church called Luther’s position on justification by faith alone “a legal fiction.”
RC Sproul once explained the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as “analytical.” It is a position that believes God will only declare a person just when, under God’s perfect analysis, there is found an inherent or infused righteousness within that person. This righteousness is present in the soul by the grace of Jesus Christ through baptism.
In contrast, Sproul defined Luther’s understanding as “synthetic” justification. By this he meant that something new has been added. When God declares a person justified, it is not because God sees righteousness within that person, but that God adds something new—the righteousness of Christ. This is why Luther called it extra nos (alien, outside of us) righteousness not something inherent.
Sproul summarized his thought: . . . the Roman Catholic idea is that grace is infused into the soul of a person at baptism, making the person inherently righteous . . . . But the Reformers insisted that we are justified when God imputes someone else’s righteousness to our account, namely, the righteousness of Christ.
Thus the Roman Catholic Church called Luther’s view a legal fiction because it seemed to undermine the integrity of God by calling a person righteous when they, in themselves, are unrighteous. Luther’s responded that just as Abraham was counted righteous because of faith (Rom 4:3), so God imputes (counts) a person righteous because of the real righteousness of Jesus Christ appropriated by faith. There is nothing fictional about Christ’s righteousness, and there is nothing fictional about God’s gracious imputation of that righteousness. (quotes and ideas taken from RC Sproul’s article “The Very Heart of the Reformation,” ligoner.org)
Given the Reformation understanding of justification based upon an imputed righteousness, we are still left with the question of how to understand the obvious emphasis of the New Testament on transformation and the necessity for righteousness and good works to be demonstrated in the Christian life. Is justification by faith merely a “bar code system” where God scans us to see if the “appropriate amount of righteousness has shifted from Christ’s account to our own in the bank of heaven and then we are saved? . . . . where transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p 37-41)
In other words, why are so many Christians ineffective and unproductive? Is it really due to a problem with our understanding of justification by faith as some kind of legal fiction or heavenly bar code? Perhaps, but I would agree with Paul David Tripp that the real culprit here is “a Gospel Gap.” It is a failure to recognize that the same Gospel that saves us is the same Gospel that sanctifies us. It is failure to articulate that the Gospel includes a new nature placed within us by the Holy Spirit that enables us not only to believe in Jesus but also to grow to be like Jesus. “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Thus faith in Christ justifies (in a moment) and sanctifies (over our life-time) and glorifies (in heaven, when we will be transformed into his likeness). In short, there should be no Gospel gap between our understanding of justification by faith and our being made holy, ultimately into the very likeness of Christ.
If any doubt remains whether the Gospel includes this kind of transformation, one only need look at 2 Peter 1:3, 4 – “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.”
In my next blog I would like to look more closely at these verses and the stunning verses that follow to gain a clearer picture on what the Christian life should look like. Stay tuned, and be sure to check out my daily devotions for Lent.