The Alliance Of Confessing Evangelicals In 1998: We Still Disagree With Rome

The first of these two documents, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” was a call to the Christian world to form a united front against the destructive influences of secular culture in such areas as ethics, statism, and the relativization of truth. In the context of this call to co-belligerency in the common sphere of cultural life, which we heartily endorse, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” affirmed a unity of faith among Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. Included in this common faith was an affirmation that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.

Many Christians were unsettled by that affirmation chiefly because of the historic controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). Pleas were made to the signatories to provide greater clarity to this matter. The second document attempts to do this. Unlike the first effort, “The Gift of Salvation” tries to clarify the unity of faith that was asserted earlier. It emphasizes the grace of God in salvation, the atonement of Christ, and that the gift of justification is received through faith.

But there is nothing new in this language from a Roman Catholic perspective. Rome has always maintained that salvation is based upon grace, upon the work of Christ and upon faith. The Council of Trent called faith the initiation (initium), foundation (fundamentum) and root (radix) of justification. “The Gift of Salvation” clearly acknowledges that justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation.

What is striking about this document is the joint affirmation by the signatories that “we understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).” This statement would seem to indicate that the co-signers agree in affirming the biblical and Reformation doctrine of sola fide. If such is the case, we rejoice. However, although it is said that certain affirmations are “in agreement with” sola fide, sola fide itself is not stated.

“The Gift of Salvation” says that:

1) Justification is received through faith,
2) Justification is not earned by good works
or merits of our own,
3) Justification is entirely God’s gift,
4) In justification God declares us to be his friends
on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, and
5) Faith is not mere intellectual assent but an act
of the whole person, issuing in a changed life.

Each of these points agrees with sola fide. Yet separately and together they fall short of both the biblical and Reformation doctrine of sola fide, which is our concern.
Imputed or Infused Righteousness
Why do they fall short? Central and essential to the biblical doctrine of justification and to the Reformation doctrine of sola fide is the concept of the “imputation” of the righteousness of Christ to the believer. Historically Rome has always contended that the basis of justification is the righteousness of Christ, but it is a righteousness that is “infused” into the believer rather than being “imputed” to him. This means that the believer must cooperate with and assent to that gracious work of God, and only to the extent that Christ’s righteousness “inheres” in the believer will God declare the person justified.

Protestants disagree, pointing to the critical difference between “infused” righteousness and “imputed” righteousness. Sola fide affirms that we are justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for us, which is accomplished by Christ’s own perfect active obedience apart from us, not on the basis of Christ’s righteousness in us. Thus, the good news of the Gospel is that we do not have to wait for righteousness to be accomplished in us before God counts us justified in his sight. He declares us to be just on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

Without the imputation of righteousness the Gospel is not good news because we can never know if we are standing before God in a justified and therefore saved state. We will have to wait for some ultimate, but by no means guaranteed, salvation. The Gospel is not good news if believers may face thousands of years in purgatory before they come at last to heaven.

—Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, An Appeal to Evangelicals (1998)

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  1. There was a major problem at …seminary concerning a couple of their professors who are very well known in the evangelical world who denied the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. You can see this in their earlier writings. According to another professor they were approached by others in the evangelical world and one or both of these professors supposedly have now accepted and teach the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

    My question is, what happens when theologians like this do not explicitly and publicly recant their earlier errors which are in print and being read by all and sundry? Why is it that men such as this are given the benefit of the doubt when so much potential or actual harm is being done in the community of believers?

    When I broached these questions with the president of … I got no response. I did get a response from another professor who is also well known who assured me that these men were slowly “coming around” or “coming along,” whatever that means.

    Anyway, these are all mentioned in various books, for example the one or two by John Piper on Justification and Imputation – one being a refutation of the bishop of Durham’s new perspectivalism. These are not wild accusations on my part and Dr. Clark if you want me to name names, I will gladly give them to you and you can decide for yourself how to use this information. The professor who bothered to reply to me has himself adopting a kind of Calvinist scientia media approach to God’s knowledge. This is well known as well. To me it is absolutely absurd to take this position, see Dr. Richard A. Muller’s fine book on Jacob Arminius and his contribution to a 2 volume set whose editors include the professor I allude to above.

    It seems that men without a sustained and consistent adherence to the creeds and confessions of our Reformed heritage, though on most occasions are capable of careful exegesis, do fall into errors because of deep-seated presuppositions or weaknesses in their understanding of historical and systematic theology.

    • Richard,

      I think the answer is in your post. Confessions don’t solve everything but they provide a baseline of basic commitments and a framework within which to address issues as they arise. Of course, if an institution is not committed to the confessions, then there’s not much to be done. Where there is no confession, however, there’s no baseline against which to measure what profs are saying/doing. Supporters should also use the confessions as a baseline by which to measure what’s being said.

  2. Neither ECT I nor ECT II collect a recant from some of the anathemas pronounced at Trent so the fact that some well-known protestant theologians signed either/or both documents (presumably in the spirit of leading “co-operative Christians” in the forefront of the charge toward social justice) mean anything…we are still worlds apart from Rome on soteriology.

  3. Once again I looked for clarity in Thomas Schreiner’s latest commentary which is on Galations. Once again he is not clear on the Imputation of Christ’s righteousness even though he mentions the forensic aspect of justification. See Guy Waters’s review in ACE Reformation 21. Even Roman Catholic scholars can discuss the “forensic” aspects of justification (Fitzmyer) but that does not necessarily include the doctrine of Imputation. Unbelievable.

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