In theological terms, there were two principles of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation: the formal principle and the material principle. The first, the formal principle, was the doctrine that Scripture is the sole, unique, and infallible authority for Christian faith and life. The second, the material principle, was the pan-Protestant consensus that sinners are justified, i.e., accepted by God as righteous, solely on the basis of righteousness or merit Christ earned for his people and imputed to them and received by faith that rests and trusts in Christ and his finished work.
In his fourth point, Perkins turned his attention to the material principle of the Reformation, the “justification of a sinner.” He first summarizes the Protestant position and then the Roman view indicating where we disagree. We get a glimpse into the significance of this section (and the heat with which it was composed) when he added, “wherein we are to stand against them, even to death.”
He began with “four rules:”
- Rule I. That justification is an action of God, whereby he absolves a sinner, and accepts him to life everlasting for the righteousness and merit of Christ.
- Rule II. That justification stands in two things: first, in the remission of sins by the merit of Christ his death: secondly, in the imputation of Christ his righteousness; which is another action of God whereby he accounts and esteems that righteousness which is in Christ, as the righteousness of that sinner which believes in him. By Christ his righteousness we are to understand two things, first, his sufferings specially in his death and passion, secondly, his obedience in fulfilling the law: both which go together: for Christ in suffering obedience and obeying suffered. And the very shedding of his blood to which our salvation is ascribed, must not only be considered as it is passive, that is, a suffering; but also as it is active, that is, an obedience, in which he showed his exceeding love both to his Father and us, and thus fulfilled the law for us. This point if some had well thought on, they would not have placed all justification in remission of sins as they do.
A word of explanation is in order here. Under this point Perkins not only gave a brief account of the Protestant doctrine of justification but articulated it in light of developments after Calvin, one of which was the denial by the Lutheran theologian Kargius and the Reformed theologian Piscator (and others) of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. To do this they first made a chronological distinction between the obedience Christ owed for himself, which he accomplished in order to qualify himself to be the Savior of sinners by his death. His passion, or “suffering” then, they argued is that part of Christ’s obedience intended to be substitutionary.The majority of the Reformed theologians, however, rejected the chronological distinction in Christ’s work. They taught that his “whole obedience” (to use the language that was proposed at the Westminster Assembly but rejected in favor of “perfect obedience” in order to satisfy the minority who opposed IAO) was both active and passive. This is why Perkins says that Christ suffered while he obeyed and he obeyed while he suffered. For more on this see the chapter on the imputation of active obedience in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
- Rule III. That justification is from Gods mere mercy and grace, procured only by the merit of Christ.
- Rule IV. That a man is justified by faith alone; because faith is that alone instrument created in the heart by the holy Ghost, whereby a sinner lays hold of Christ his righteousness, and applies the same unto himself. There is neither hope, nor love, nor any other grace of God within man, that can do this but faith alone.
In contrast, Perkins wrote, the Roman communion teaches that before justification there must be a “preparation” which is worked partly by the Holy Spirit and partly by the “power of natural free will” by which a man disposes himself or a “habitus” is created in him toward future justification.
When Rome says “faith” they mean “a general knowledge” or an intellectual apprehension of one’s sins, “a fear of hell, hope of salvation, love of God, repentance and the like….” When we have attained to these things they are said by Rome to be “fully disposed” to their justification. In short, for Rome, justification is the process, the result of sanctification or grace and cooperation with grace.
For Rome, justification is not God’s declaration that we are righteous on account of what Christ has done for us but a recognition of the righteousness that has been wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace.
To effect this, two things are required: first, the pardon of sin, which is one part of the first justification: secondly, the infusion of inward righteousness, whereby the heart is purged and sanctified, and this habit [disposition] of righteousness stands specially in hope and charity.
This is the first justification. According to Rome there is a second, when a “just man is made better and more just: and this, say they, may proceed from works of grace: because he which is righteous by the first justification, can bring forth good works: by the merit whereof he is able to make himself more just and righteous: and yet they grant that the first justification comes only of Gods mercy by the merit of Christ.”
The great difference between the Protestants and Rome is the “cause” or ground of justification with God. We say: “Nothing but the righteousness of Christ, which consists partly in his sufferings and partly in his active obedience in fulfilling the rigor of the law.” Rome grants that “in justification sin is pardoned by the merits of Christ, and that none can be justified without remission of sins” and they concede that “the righteousness whereby a man is made righteous before God, comes from Christ” alone. Further, the “most learned among them” teach that Christ’s satisfaction and merit is “imputed to every sinner” who believes and we agree.
The “very point of difference”is that we say that Christ made satisfaction for us and Rome says
“The thing…that makes us righteous before God, and causes us to be accepted to life everlasting, is remission of sins, and the habit of inward righteousness; or charity with the fruits thereof.
Perkins hastened to add that we believe in a “habit of righteousness.” We call it sanctification and it is the “most excellent gift of God” but it not the ground of justification but rather the fruit of justification.
Next time: More on the differences between the Reformation and Rome on justification