Justification By Faith Alone Is Presbyterian Doctrine

Jerusalem Chamber Westminster Abbey, with new chandeliers, spotsIt’s hard to remember where I last saw an actual shell game. It might have been at the Nebraska State Fair or it might have been at some amusement park. It doesn’t matter. The fellow behind the table shows you three empty cups and one bean. He tips the cups end up and covers the bean with one of them and challenges one of the onlookers to keep track of the bean as he moves the cups around. It seems easy enough. Three cups, two hands, one bean. How difficult can it be? The fellow behind the table  wins every time. It’s sleight of hand, the essence of which is to call attention to another cup, to distract attention away from the cup with the bean. So it can be in theology and history. Some times it is easy to follow the wrong cup, to lose, the bean, as it were.

One of the figurative shell games that writers sometimes play is to suggest problems that do not actually exist. The name for this move is red herring. In mysteries a red herring is a ostensible clue or an event that does not lead toward the solution of the mystery. It is designed to mislead direct focus away from the solution so that the author can spring the resolution on us at the end as a surprise. During the controversy over the self-described Federal Vision movement the proponents of this corruption of the gospel regularly argued that it does not really matter what one believes about the doctrine of justification because, after all, what really matters is that one believes in Jesus (and, in the FV scheme, cooperates sufficiently with grace to retain what was said to have been given in baptism: temporary election, temporary union with Christ, temporary justification, temporary adoption etc.). It is not the doctrine of justification, they say, that justifies but rather it is Jesus who justifies. Of course this is true and it is a good example of a shell game or a red herring because no confessional Protestant has ever argued and no confessional Protestant has ever confessed that sinners are justified by a doctrine. Their claim proves too much. On the basis of their logic we may ask why the Federal Visionists proposed a new doctrine of justification? On their logic there should never have been a Reformation in the first place and perhaps that is the goal of this sort of rhetoric, to call into question the validity of the Reformation?

Of course, what is at issue is how we should understand Scripture and what we should teach and confess about the doctrine of justification. The Reformed have always taught and confessed that the ground of our free acceptance with God is the righteousness of Christ, which is outside of us (extra nos), which  he accomplished for us (pro nobis), and which is imputed to us. We teach and confess that his righteousness is received through faith alone  (sola fide) defined as “resting” and “trusting” and “leaning” on Christ and his righteousness alone for justification. That is the truth. Is it the case that not every justified person fully understands this truth fully? Probably. The confessional Protestants never said that those Patristic (c. 100–500 AD) and medieval (c. 500–1500 AD) Christians were not justified because they did not formulate the doctrine of justification in the same detail as the confessional Protestants. We have always understood that the articulation of doctrine develops. We were more precise on the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity in the 4th century (et seq.) than we were in earlier centuries because we faced threats to the biblical and Christian doctrines that needed to be repudiated. Those challenges forced us to clarify our doctrine. By the time of the Definition of Chalcedon (451) and the Athanasian Creed (7th century) the Western church, at least, had agreed on a quite detailed set of propositions to which all Christian were required to assent. There are objective boundaries within which one’s confession must fall in order to be a Christian. There are objective boundaries within which one’s doctrine must fall in order to be Reformed and Presbyterian.

So it is with the doctrine of justification. In response to a series of largely medieval errors,  in controversy with the Roman communion, and through internal dialogue, the Protestant Reformation achieved an advanced degree of precision in the doctrine of justification. By the middle of the 17th century, about 126 years after Luther had developed the basics of the Reformation doctrine of justification,  the orthodox Reformed theologians were teaching a quite precise doctrine of justification and nowhere is that precision more evident than in the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647).1

Q. 70. What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

The divines were precise in their definition of justification because this was the material question of the Reformation: how are we right with God? Rome confessed at Trent (session 6, 1547) that justification is progressive sanctification, a process that begins at baptism and is not ordinarily consummated in this life. Further, Rome declared that ordinarily it is sheer presumption to say, in this life, “I am justified.” For Rome, justification is by grace and cooperation with grace and she declared (and declares) that anyone who contradicts that teaching is eternally condemned (anathema). So, for Rome, justification is wrought in us by grace. For Rome, the ground of justification is our inherent righteousness. The instrument is baptism.

As you can see for yourself, Presbyterians confess something quite different. Each word of our definition was chosen carefully. We define justification not as a process begun at baptism but as a single act, a declaration by God about sinners. Where Rome says that justification is really only God’s recognition of what is true of us intrinsically, we say that God’s gospel word makes our justification true. The ground is not inside us (our sanctification) but outside of us. Christ and his righteousness is the ground and his righteousness is imputed to us or accounted ours. God justifies sinners for the sake of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.

Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.

Rome accused us, by teaching this doctrine of imputation, of making justification a “legal fiction.” In response we confess that no, it is Rome who teaches a doctrine of legal fiction because it is they who teach that God accepts our imperfect efforts toward justification. We confess Christ’s righteousness is real, that he made a “proper” and “real” and “full” satisfaction to God’s justice for us. This is in contrast to the Roman doctrine that we make partial “satisfaction” to God’s justice by acts of penance and by the memorial, propitiatory sacrifice of the mass. Where Rome (and the Federal Vision) teaches that Christ died to make final justification possible for those who do their part, we confess that Christ actually accomplished justification once for all by his active suffering all his life and especially on the cross (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 37). Christ provided for us what we could not provide for ourselves. That is why we say that justification is an act of God’s free grace to us sinners. God provided for us what we could not and would not provide for ourselves. Like the ram in the thicket, he provided a substitute in the person and work of God the Son incarnate, our Lord Jesus. All that he did for us is reckoned to us. That is why God requires nothing of us for justification except faith—and that too is the gift of God lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8–10).

Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Rome defined faith as a Spirit-wrought virtue, which had intrinsic power. For Rome, faith is way of talking about sanctification. For us Protestants faith, in justification, is not a virtue. It has no inherent strength or power. Rather, according to the Larger Catechism, faith is the sole instrument (Belgic Confession, art. 23), a saving grace, given to us by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, as part of which we recognize the greatness of our sin and misery, we assent to the truth of the gospel promise, and “receive and rest” on Christ and his righteousness announced to us in the gospel.

Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.

Contra Rome and the Federal Visionists, we say that true faith is always accompanied by other graces (e.g., good works) but those things are the fruit of true faith and justification. Rome taught that the other graces are what make faith what it is (fides formata caritate). We deny the Roman doctrine. It is not our sanctity, it is not charity (love) poured forth into our hearts that makes faith powerful. It is the object of faith, Christ, who makes faith powerful. Faith is, as Luther said, an empty hand. Faith is the sole instrument of justification because Christ is the only Savior and we come into possession of his justifying righteousness by trusting in, resting on and receiving his righteousness alone.

At every point where Rome and moralists like Richard Baxter tried to lead us away from Paul and Luther on justification, the Westminster Assembly and all confessional Presbyterians resisted stoutly. The adopted a thoroughly Protestant definition of justification that explicitly rejected sanctification as any part of our justification. They explicitly rejected any attempt to redefine faith as a virtue toward justification.

Red herrings and shell games are a potential distraction from what confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches actually confess. The confessions are like a secret weapon to defeat the shell game. We don’t have to wonder what we believe and we don’t have to get lost in an allegedly bewildering array of diverse view on justification. Our churches have read the Word of God together and we confess a clear, plain doctrine of justification together and we do so in considerable detail. Remember, our confessions are not systematic theologies in miniature. No, systematic theologies are teachings of individuals. We don’t confess Charles Hodge or Louis Berkhof. We confess  God’s Word together in  public, authoritative (under Scripture) documents to which all of our ministers and elders are bound (in most American Presbyterian denominations) and, in some Reformed denominations, to which even the members are bound. You don’t have to try to follow the cup. Just follow God’s Word as confessed by the churches.


1. The Larger Catechism was completed in 1647 and submitted to Parliament. It was approved by the House of Commons in 1648 and by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1649. Here’s a brief introduction to the WLC.

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  • 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. Thank you for a great post. I am constantly amazed by the precision and clarity of doctrine found in our confessions. What a blessing it is to join with God’s people over almost four centuries in confessing our faith in Christ.

  2. I think this must be said that “Justification By Faith Alone” is first a biblical doctrine. God SHOULD be getting ALL our honor and full allegiance, not just what is left over after we glory in our historical tradition, giving tribute and precedence while persuading others do the same.

    I actually see another shell game: substituting the adoption and calling of God for doctrine & denomination.

    It seems to me that to speak of “faith alone” the way you have serves to cheapen God’s gift and His due glory by directing attention towards man and not God, even if in ever the slightest way.

    Are we the children of God and disciples of the way, or are we “Reformed” and our doctrinal confessions pure; to me it seams that if the later has value to us, than the prior has been tainted by the leaven of the pharisees and is not the pure gold that God creates, and is not “Faith Alone”.

    • Josh,

      The name of the blog is The Heidelblog, the name of which comes from the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). It’s devoted, as the subtitle says, to recovering the Reformed confession, the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. I’ve even written a book this end called Recovering the Reformed Confession. So, I fear our purposes are at odds if your goal is to advance biblicism.

      FWIW, I’ve defended sola Scriptura at length on the HB. Scripture is pre-eminent above all other authorities, confession included. In the Reformed churches, however, we do confess a certain understanding of Scripture, which we believe to be biblical, which we’ve worked out over a long time.

      The real question is not whether the churches will confess a doctrine of justification but which doctrine. Confessions are unavoidable. The person who says “no creed but Christ” has very short, a very impoverished confession.

      More on this:



  3. @Josh and Dr. Clark: It’s important to recall the the Reformation was first and foremost a rediscovery of the Bible and re-affirming what it taught. Those re-affirmations are called confessions. This is why my sympathies are very strongly with the Reformed camp, and I recognize its importance in this day and age when the message of salvation has become so muddied. It is a tragedy of major proportions that, after so many free themselves from the vagaries and excesses of 19th century Finneyism, that they tumble headlong, via FV, into the medieval morass against which the Reformation protested.

    And how big is the Jesus we confess? Shall he be returned to the little sacramental doses which, Rome teaches, need to be infused into us along life’s way, and which can so easily be expelled? Or, shall we have a powerful Christ able to save to the uttermost those who come to him? I do not believe that this is a false dichotomy at all. Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and others like them were very much impressed at what the Scriptures teach about what Jesus accomplished for us.

    BTW, Dr. Clark, there’s another shell game going on out there, too. It’s the New Perspective on Paul. While I agree with it about the importance of the Jews-and-Gentiles question in Paul’s mind, and will even gladly accept that in important ways Paul was indeed a Jewish missionary to Gentiles, I hold that the “Old Perspective” continues to make a very valid point that Paul was giving both Jews and Gentiles an answer to that old question in Job about how man can be righteous before God.

    • Peter (and Dr Clark), I’d be interested to know what you think of WEST’s Tom Holland’s “Contours of Pauline Theology”, in which he engages with the New Perspective, and the conclusions he draws.

  4. I’m gathering here that the doctrine of Justification was set forward pretty clearly by the Reformed. However, I see other scholars saying that there were still critical debates between people within the Reformed world about matters concerning Justification. http://goo.gl/DPFWGC

    It’s confusing to see one historian say one thing, and the other saying another thing.

    • Res,

      1. Welcome to the HB.

      2. Per the comments policy, pseudonyms are not allowed unless there’s a good reason. Use the contact page to write to the management to discuss.

      3. I understand the frustration. We all experience it. One group of physicians says x and another says -x and which group are we to believe?

      4. The evidence that the Reformed were agreed on justification as individuals and as churches is overwhelming. As I keep saying, it is a common tactic of revisionists, who are dissatisfied with what we confess, to appeal to outliers to suggest that there was a great lot of controversy when there was not. One way to resolve the problem is to read the sources for yourself. There is plenty of source material in English (and Latin). There are reliable surveys. The claim that there was a great deal of diversity on “the article of the standing or falling of the church” (J. H. Alsted) is not widely shared by scholars.

      5. One function of the confessions is to serve as a baseline and a curb. The confessions exist as they do because there was a mainstream Reformed doctrine of justification. The same doctrine is in ALL the major and virtually all the minor Reformed confessions. You can see them for yourself in the 4 vol series recently completed. That evidence alone is sufficient to refute the claim that there was such a great diversity of views on justification.

  5. What’s odd though is if you read Luther on baptism in his catechisms and the BoC it’s a denial of sola fide. There is no way around it. Luther was a great man buy his doctrine of baptism is antithetical to sola fide. Why folks don’t see this is beyond me.

    • Michial,

      I’m less confident. I understand how one could come to such a conclusion and I would agree that what you say is more true of Lutheran orthodoxy but I’m not sure that Luther taught exactly what Lutheran orthodoxy did. As I read his Small Catechism, it seems to me that just as it seems he must say what you attribute to him, he backs away. I think that, for Luther, the sacraments are the gospel made visible and they do what the gospel does. He so identified the Spirit with baptism that it lead him to speak, perhaps hyperbolically, as he did. Yet, he always says that it is not baptism that does these things. It is Christ, through faith.

  6. Yes, he said its not h2o in and of itself, but it is the ritual insofar as God has attached His promise to it. Which for Luther is in every case of infant baptism as all children have faith. Every baby baptized has been regenerated, washed clean of sins and is a child of God. They can then subsequently loose their justification, not by acts of sin, but a denial of the faith.I was LCMS for a while and every sermon, every devotion,etc mentioned baptism what we are to look to. In reading much of Luther he said the same thing. When I asked about passages like as many as He justified them He also glorified I was told by countless astute Lutherans that justification is not a one time event contra to Rom 5:1.

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