Differences between the Lutheran and the Reformed view of Justification

I have been writing on a blog post on the difference between Lutheran and Reformed views of Justification, and I found out that this day must be the best day to post it. Today is the 10th anniversary of my blog, and the first post I posted (in Norwegian) was about protestantism, secularism, and the state of Christian education in Norway. And what can be more appropriate than writing on Justification – the issue that most defines Protestantism, and which most points out the differences between the different churches coming from the Reformation?

I take as my starting point some comments a made, on a closed forum, on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In response to these, a Reformed member of the Church of England made the point to me that the document, signed by, in his words, «some Roman Catholic scholars and liberal, ecumenical Lutheran bodies,» makes no mention of the concept of imputed righteousness. I was quick to point out that this was as it should be, as this has never been part of Lutheran teaching. There are probably many Lutherans who believe in it, but then they do so despite what is being taught in the Lutheran confessions, most importantly in Confessio Augustana (or the Augsburg Confession). I want to expand on my comments here.

The Reformed (Calvinist) doctrine of imputed righteousness is contrary to Lutheran teaching, as we find it in Confessio Augustana. It is correct that the confession makes use of the Latin verb imputat (third-person singular present active indicative of imputō), meaning ‘impute, reckon, count,’ in reference to justification: Hanc fidem imputat Deus pro iustitia coram ipso, «this faith God imputes for justification in his own sight.» The German text says: Denn diesen glauben will Gott fuer Gerechtigkeit vor ihm halten und zurechnen, «for this faith God will account for righteousness in his own sight.»

Note that the confession nowhere states that righteousness itself is imputed. What is imputed is faith. And that is explicitly contrary to Reformed teaching, per the Westminster Confession of Faith. In its article or chapter on Justification (XI), it states: «Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.» (Emphasis added)

The Reformed doctrine, then, states that our justification comes through the imputation of «the obedience and satisfaction of Christ» (i.e. the righteousness of Christ), while Lutherans teach that our justification comes through the imputation of faith itself, which is explicitly denied in Westminster Confession of Faith. The question we ought to ask, is this: What does it mean that faith is imputed? What does it mean to impute?

Take Romans 4:5, which is a recurring verse in these debates: «And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned [imputed] for righteousness.» Note that St. Paul doesn’t say that righteousness is imputed (reckoned or counted), or that the ungodly man himself is ‘counted.’ What is «reckoned [counted/imputed] for righteousness» is his faith.

But what does it mean to ‘impute,’ ‘reckon’ or ‘count’? Well, it presupposes the reality of the thing counted. I prefer translating it as ‘reckon,’ but they mean the same. To ‘reckon,’ ‘count’ or ‘impute’ does not constitute ‘fiction.’ If I deposit $100 into an empty bank account, I reckon that I have $100 in that bank account. But that reckoning is in no way a ‘fiction.’ I reckon that I have $100 because I do indeed have $100. That reckoning is based on my knowledge. I might be ignorant. Maybe I thought I deposited $100, but instead deposited $50. Than I would be wrong in my reckoning. Reckoning is always based upon knowledge. But God is all-knowing.

So, when Paul (and Lutherans) say that faith is «imputed/reckoned/counted for righteousness/justification,» it means that this faith is reckoned to be sufficient for (initial) justification. It is NOT that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, but that our faith is imputed for justification. That means that our faith, our trust, is regarded as sufficient for (initial) justification.

But what is this kind of faith? Here we come to a point where I have to agree with many Reformed theologians, while I disagree with many Lutheran ones.

Both Reformed and Lutheran theology affirms that you are justified by ‘faith alone’ (Lt. iustificationem sola fide). But there is a difference here, depending on some grammatical choices. Is sola, ‘alone,’ an adjective modifying the noun (fide, ‘faith’), or an adverb modifying the verb/participle (iustificationem, ‘justify’). If it is the former, the phrase (iustificationem sola fide) means that justification comes by a faith that is alone, while it is the latter, the phrase means that justification comes by a faith alone, but not necessarily a faith that is alone. In Lutheran circles, the approach has historically been the former, AFAIK, while in Reformed circles, the approach has historically been the latter.

Here I do side with the latter view, much because it seems to be much more in tune with passages like James 2.14-26, and there is no indication, in Confessio Augustana or in Luther’s Small Catechism, that the former is the correct reading, but there is an strong emphasis on living the Christian life (see here, here, and here. We can then conclude that faith alone for Luther means that we are justified by faith alone, but that this faith is a faith given to us from God, who also poures his love into us (cf. Rom. 5:1-5, Gal. 5:6). And this approach is also one made by none other than pope Benedict XVI. He points out that justification doesn’t come though faith + works, but though a faith which will manifest itself through works:

Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).

The faith which is imputed for righteousness is not any old faith, but an active faith, as we see in Gal 5:6, where Paul unambigiously states that the faith which «is of any avail» is «faith working through love.» That itself doesn’t necessarily mean that one must act — that would rule out people who cannot act — but it states that you also need love to be saved, the love of God «poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit» (Rom 5:5, cf. vv.1-11). This love must be lived out according to each person’s ability.

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