Yes There Is A Reformed Doctrine Of Justification

Recently I responded to John Armstrong’s post on the TIME magazine new Calvinist discussion. In his reply, John makes this startling claim:

There is no monolithic Reformed voice on justification (especially re: imputation) and I would be very happy if we allowed a serious discussion without the accusations that are often made about “denying” the gospel when a particular category of this subject (imputation of Christ’s active obedience) is made central to the whole discussion. This is too often the case in this more narrowly defined Reformed/Lutheran debate. If this point is central then only a few Christians, even among Protestants, saw it and today almost no one understands the gospel if this point is essential. I simply do not believe this to be the case. Scott and others may disagree but I think most Christians (including most theologians and biblical scholars) find this form of the debate very unconvincing. A perusal of the written work on Paul and Jesus, done by most scholars today, will bear this point out.

The most basic question here is how to define the adjective “Reformed.” As I’ve argued in RRC and in this space, the most reasonable definition of the adjective “Reformed” is, “the theology, piety, and practice confessed by the Reformed Churches in their public, ecclesiastically sanctioned, summaries of God’s Word, i.e. their confessions and catechisms.” By contrast, John asserts a contrary definition that is private, subjective, and extra-ecclesiastical. By my definition, the word “Reformed” means what it has meant since the early 16th century. By John’s definition, the adjective may mean one thing today and another thing tomorrow, depending upon where his journey from fundamentalism to the emerging church takes him next.

Second, is the Reformed confession concerning imputation “monolithic”? The Oxford American Dictionary defines “monolithic” in this usage as meaning “…intractably indivisible and uniform.” As noted in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (also available on iTunes) the overwhelming evidence from the history of Reformed theology and the history of the Reformed churches is that there is a very strong consensus on the doctrine of justification.

It is beyond dispute that the mainstream of Reformed theologians, and more importantly, the Reformed Churches in their confessions and catechisms, have taught the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the ground of justification. This evidence is surveyed, from primary sources in a chapter in CJPM. One has only to read Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21 and 60, Belgic Confession Art. 23, Westminster Confession ch. 11, WLC Q/A 70-74 to see the official doctrine of the Reformed Churches in Europe and in the Englsh-speaking world. On this point the doctrine of the confessional Protestants is one.

Among the Reformed, there has been a small, noisy minority (including three divines at the Westminster Assembly) that has denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Again, see the chapter in CJPM for a history of this discussion. Overwhelmingly, however, the Reformed Churches and their leading theologians have taught implicitly or explicitly the doctrine that Christ did not obey to qualify himself to be a Savior, but that he obeyed in our place and that, as Heidelberg 60 says, ” yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, [God] 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….”

It is no surprise that, in the modern period when rationalism and subjectivism have reigned supreme, that both early modern rationalists and late modern subjectivists (both of them equally indebted to the Enlightenment however!) have denied not only the penal substitution as offensive to modern sensibilities but also the imputation of active obedience. It strikes the modern as unfair that Jesus should not only perform our obedience for us (pro nobis!) but also that he should suffer in our place. Rationalists know a priori that this is unjust. Moralists (often the same lot as the rationalists) believe that such teaching subverts Christian morality and ethics by denying an important motive for obedience and Christian life.

Those who still believe the Reformation gospel, who do not think it is outdated or outmoded, understand with Paul that the gospel is not sweetly reasonable, that it is offensive to those who demand power and a stumbling block to those for whom human rationality is supreme. As for Paul, for us, the foolish gospel of the active obedience of Christ, is the wisdom of God. The paradox of the gospel is that it is through the message of salvation and justification accomplished for us, that God the Spirit works new life, faith, and communion with the living Christ.

The choice we have is between revisionists such as John Armstrong, and obscure folk such as Martin Luther, who wrote in 1535 on Gal 2:20:

Read with great emphasis these words, “me,” “for me,” and accustom yourself to accept and apply to yourself this “me” with certain faith. The words OUR, US, FOR US, ought to be written in golden letters—the man who does not believe them is not a Christian.

This discussion reminds me that, for all the posturing of the late modern “emergent” and “emerging” types about how “postmodern” they are, the fact is that they are really quite modern. They simply assume that there was only one branch of modernity (rationalism) and they ignore the historical fact that there was another equally vigorously modernist branch: subjectivism. It’s not as if the subjectivists weren’t modern. They were quite modern. As Mike Horton has said, the postmoderns are really “most modern.” They continue to assume and assert human autonomy over against divine authority and especially that expressed by the Word as confessed ministerially by the churches.

Is the Reformed confession of justification on the basis of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAO) a sectarian view?  Does it mean that those who hold it are implicitly condemning to perdition all those who have or currently deny it? No. Those who deny the imputation of Christ’s active obedience are missing a glorious, freedom-granting, faith-building, assurance-building truth. Those who deny the doctrine of imputation, however, are denying the gospel. The doctrine of imputation is essential to the gospel such that those who deny it have denied the good news. Confessional Protestants are bound by God’s Word to confess this. Here we stand. The doctrine of IAO is an important, vital Reformed doctrine. My own federation has affirmed in in two synods in 2004 and 2007  over against the Federal Vision and other moralists.

Is the Reformed faith “monolithic” on everything? No. The confessions, which John seems to find so confining, are actually quite liberating in this respect. I am free from your opinion and subject to the Word of God as confessed by the Churches. Where the Churches have not confessed, I am free. I am free to read, learn, and inwardly digest the Word and to do so with the tradition, to learn from it and to grow with it.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2009.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. A couple of matters of curiosity:

    (1) Who were the trio at Westminster who denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ?

    (2) Where does the Reformed doctrine of justification differ from the Lutheran doctrine of justification? Is there anything substantial in the difference, and if so, what?

  2. I commend you Dr. Clark for standing firm against the current tide, which seems to undermine the gospel and salvation. From my perspective, I see precious few pastor-scholars defending and advocating justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in our day.

    I run in circles that either waver or deny the historic position on salvation and the atonement. There are many things that the Reformed get called of heckled about in our day; however, I admire your tradition’s staunch commitment to the gospel. Out of respect for the term Reformed, I don’t use it all. I self-identify as particular baptist or something like that in these circles.

    In the end, I sense a greater hostility rising in our culture toward the gospel and our Lord. Sometimes I face criticism for my views, but I remain resolute because of who Jesus is and what he has done for me. The latter is a miracle and solely by his grace. It’s been humbling to study the Reformed view of the ordo salutis. It is rich and glorious.

  3. Thanks for this. Very helpful. It seems to me that just as those who think the constitution of the U.S. outmoded or wrong on certain points should seek to have it amended rather than just self-righteously disobey it, those who think the Reformed confessions and catechisms are in error should work through the proper ecclesiastical channels to try to have them changed. If they are then unsuccessful, they should either accept defeat for the peace of the church or seek another fellowship if their conscience does not let them remain. Our confessions and catechisms are very clear on this issue.

  4. I find it hard to believe that those who reject “IAO” are not on their way to a hot place…but that’s just me (grin).

    Thank you again, Dr. Clark for being such a consistent voice for the Faith.

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