The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


The Reformed Consensus

on Justification

by Lee Gatiss


The Aim of this Study

This article focuses on the classic Reformed doctrine of justification.  Rather than a diachronic survey of developments within the Reformed tradition (along the lines of historical theology), this will be a synchronic study of the major systematic presentations of influential figures within Reformed thought.  An historical survey by its very nature would tend to emphasize the distinctives and variations within the Reformed constituency over time.  The aim of this study, on the other hand, is to examine the basic framework of the Reformed presentation of the doctrine.  This may be clarified by interaction over time with the views of others, but a substantial core of basic conclusions and presuppositions will be evident.  This is particularly true for Reformed theology since it reflects self-consciously upon both Scripture and its own tradition, treating Calvin, for example, as a living voice rather than an historical monument.  It is especially evident where justification is concerned, due no doubt to a keen awareness of its historical significance during the Reformation.

Gaining access to the consensus of Reformed theologians on the doctrine of justification will facilitate an evaluation of the charges leveled against it by the so-called “New Perspective.”  The study will attempt to present the core convictions of a cross section of influential figures highly regarded within Reformed theology itself.  It will do so on their own terms, highlighting the main points of the doctrine as they are presented in the texts.

It will be useful, to begin with, to introduce the key figures I shall examine, and their major works:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559).  Perhaps the most influential of all Reformed thinkers, Calvin requires little introduction.  A prolific writer of biblical commentaries as well as a theologian, he was also an energetic preacher and church reformer.  The Institutes continue to be used across the world as a basic textbook of Reformed theology.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1679-85).  Turretin taught at the Academy of Geneva in the declining years of Genevan orthodoxy.  His three-volume Elenctic Theology»1 was a standard textbook in at Princeton Theological Seminary in the Nineteenth century.  American Protestantism owes a great deal to his influence, particularly over Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge and Robert L. Dabney.  His influence is beginning to be re-appropriated through a reprint of this work.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871-73).  Hodge was Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Also well known for his commentaries on Romans, Ephesians and the Corinthian epistles, his Systematic Theology in three volumes is still in print.  Hodge was highly regarded by other Reformed theologians such as Dabney and B. B. Warfield.

Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology (1939).  Professor Berkof was formerly President of Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.  His one-volume Systematic Theology has been reprinted many times and is a standard Reformed textbook.

Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (1998).  Dr. Reymond is Dean of Faculty and Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA.  His one-volume New Systematic Theology is “a comprehensive, contemporary statement of the classic Reformed faith” and received very favourable reviews from leading figures in contemporary Reformed theology such as J.I. Packer, Edmund Clowney, Roger Nicole and John Frame.  R. Kent Hughes suggests that it is “a theology which will cast a gracious shadow into the next millennium.”»2  Whether or not this is so, Reymond is highly regarded in the Reformed constituency.


The terminology of justification

The Reformed consensus is that justification is forensic terminology.  Each of the theologians surveyed begins, after occasional preliminary remarks concerning the importance of the doctrine, with a discussion not of its historical development but of the Scriptural terms for justification.»3  The discussion is generally placed in the context of a dispute with the Roman Catholic definition of justification, although, it is also acknowledged that other theologians (Unitarians, advocates of the moral influence theory of the atonement and some liberal theologians) deny the forensic nature of justification as well.»4  This debate is also of some importance when assessing the New Perspective.

The Reformed discussion consistently makes the following points:

1.  The context in which the Greek and Hebrew terms for justify / justification and their cognates are used generally show them to be a forensic / legal terms.  This is their normal and “proper” use.»5  Texts examined in support of this contextual affirmation include Exodus 23:7; Deuteronomy 25:1; Isaiah 5:23; Proverbs 17:15; Luke 18:14; Acts 13:39 and various Pauline texts. 

Other arguments include:

*  The word is often used in antithetical relation to other forensic terms such as condemnation: Deuteronomy 25:1;

1 Kings 8:32; Job 9:20; Isaiah 5:23; Matthew 12:37; Romans 8:33-34.

*  Impossible meanings result if some passages are taken as non-forensic (to justify meaning to “make just”:

Proverbs 17:15 is cited most frequently on this account.

*  The context is of legal proceedings: Genesis 18:25; Psalm 143:2; Romans 3:19-20; 8:33.

2.  The secondary or “improper” uses of the terms are also noted: the comparative use (e.g. Ezekiel 16:51-52; Jeremiah 3:11),»6 synecdoche (e.g. Romans 6:7),»7 Hebraism for rendering of deserved praise (e.g. Luke 7:29, 35)»8 and other verses where the normal usage does not fit (Daniel 12:3 for example).»9

3.  Equivalent phrases are judicial: Genesis 15:6; Psalm 32:1-2; John 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:19.

The discussion is not limited to the terminology of either Testament.  Each theologian appears to be a competent interpreter of Hebrew and Greek, and their conclusions are corroborated by Reformed lexical studies.»10  The method of approach is not “assertion followed by proof text.”  This method seems to appear in Reymond’s presentation, although he is careful to introduce his lists of Bible verses with an indication that the context not just the content of the verses quoted is important to his case.»11  The biggest opponent on these points is seen to be a Roman Catholic position, which treats justification as if it meant, “to make righteous”.  These are the points on which all the theologians agree.  Several make their own distinctive points in order to provide additional support to the contention that the terminology is forensic.  It is the terminology of a worldview which sees God as a Judge, relating to his world in terms of law.  He is not an ordinary judge, of course, since he is also the omniscient Creator God who has an intimate relationship with us.  Law, however, is understood to be one of the essential and central categories by which to understand God’s relationship to humanity.»12


The Nature of Justification

The Reformed consensus is that justification is an instantaneous, once-and-for-all, judicial act of God.»13  Being a judicial / forensic act it involves a change of status due to imputation rather than a change of nature due to infusion, and is not a process.  It does not take place in degrees throughout the believer’s life so that they can be said to be more justified at one time than at another.»14

The Reformed consensus is that justification consists of two parts; remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.»15  Calvin sometimes speaks as if he considered it to be merely the former,»16 and Hodge feels compelled to explain this on the basis of the opponents Calvin was particularly aiming to refute.»17  Whatever his polemical bias, Calvin clearly did affirm justification to consist of both these two elements.»18  Turretin wishes to “philosophize correctly” and suggests that the two parts are related as cause and effect, and that it would be more accurate to speak of two benefits of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, that is absolution and adoption.»19  The negative element (absolution) is seen as based more particularly on the passive obedience of Christ; the positive element (adoption or “right to life”) being based more particularly on his active obedience.»20  This double-edged definition is in contrast to the Roman Catholic definition that is charged with confounding imputation and infusion, justification and sanctification.»21  It is also in opposition to the perceived stance of Anselm, Piscator, and Arminian doctrine which deny the positive element of justification.»22

The forgiveness of sins thus attained in justification is said by Reformed theologians to cover the guilt and penalty of all sins, past, present and future;»23 yet this does not abolish the need for a daily prayerful seeking of forgiveness (as commanded by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer).»24  A distinction is made between God’s wrath, from which the justified are freed, and his fatherly displeasure, which they may still elicit by their sins.»25  Sin is not removed from the justified, it is forgiven while the believer remains a sinner until the day they die: simul iustus et peccator.»26  Many of these points are asserted against specific objections from Roman Catholic theologians.


The Ground of Justification

The Reformed consensus is that works are not in any sense the ground or meritorious cause of our justification.»27  This is affirmed mostly against Roman Catholic, Arminian, Socinian and Pelagian theories. The only ground for justification is the perfect, alien (outside of us) righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer.  The Roman Catholic inclusion of inherent righteousness in justification is ruled out, as is the Arminian insistence on imperfect obedience to the gospel being acceptable in place of perfect obedience to the Law.»28  Scripture speaks repeatedly of justification “not by works”»29 and this is sufficiently heeded by all that no-one suggests a straightforward “justification by works.”  Rather, as Calvin states, “a great part of mankind imagine that righteousness is composed of faith and works.”»30  Among the reasons for rejecting any mixture of faith and works as the meritorious cause of justification are:

1.  The fact that all human works are imperfect, while God demands perfection. There can be no partial righteousness established on the basis of partial obedience since this underestimates the severity of God’s demands and the weightiness of sin.»31

2.  Works of all kinds, not just works of one particular category, are excluded from justification by Scripture, including “works of the gospel” (as opposed to works of the law),»32 supererogatory works (not least on the basis of Luke 17:10),»33 post-regeneration works (thought by Roman Catholics to earn meritum de congruo)»34 and faith if counted as a work.»35 

3.  If works played any part in justification they would provide us with a ground for boasting, which is specifically excluded.»36

4.  When the positive ground of justification is stated in Scripture, “it is ever represented as something external to ourselves.”»37  It is always presented as something done for us, rather than in us or by us.

The Reformed consensus is that this external ground of our justification is alone found in the perfect righteousness of Christ.  This righteousness is not inherent within us or declared to be inherent within us contrary to fact; it is imputed to us “in Christ” and is therefore not a “legal fiction” (by which is meant a declaration contrary to fact) but a judicially true statement.»38  By his perfect obedience and vicarious death Christ satisfied the demands of the law enabling God to justly justify (Romans 3:26) the ungodly in Christ.»39  It is a perfect and sufficient righteousness which needs no supplement: there is no “getting in” by grace and “staying in” by works: “God does not, as many stupidly believe, once for all reckon to us as righteousness that forgiveness of sins concerning which we have spoken in order that, having obtained pardon for our past life, we may afterward seek righteousness in the law; this would be only to lead us into false hope, to laugh at us, and mock us.”»40


Excursus: “Works of the Law” in Reformed Dogmatics

As part of the assertion (noted above) that Scripture excludes all works from the ground of justification, Reformed thinkers interact with a view that sees “works of the law” as referring only to works of the ceremonial law.»41  Hodge attributes this move to Pelagians and Rationalists, who argue that ceremonial works are excluded by Paul, but not moral works of the law.  Thus they rely on the old distinction between civil, ceremonial and moral law.»42  The purpose of this is to reintroduce some element of works into justification: to allow moral works to count before God but to explain Paul’s allergy to works of the law as a ceremonial question, relating to circumcision and other ceremonies of the Jewish Law.

Calvin calls this view “an ingenious subterfuge” which, regardless of its long pedigree is “utterly silly.”  He then discusses several passages»43 which he considered to make less sense if “works of the law” were taken in a restrictive way to refer to ceremonies only.  “Even schoolboys would hoot at such impudence,” he says, “Therefore, let us hold as certain that when the ability to justify is denied to the law, these words refer to the whole law.”»44  Calvin tries to explain why Paul speaks occasionally of “works of the law” instead of “works” generally:  even legalists would only give such weight to works which had the “testimony and vouchsafing of God” behind them (i.e. those written in God’s own Law).  Paul excepts works in an unqualified sense in any case.»45

Turretin states that the law which is excluded from justification is the same law through which comes knowledge of sin.»46  This is best understood as the whole law.  He also points out that if the ceremonial law only is excluded, then justification must be ascribed to the moral law, which it never is.  He follows this with citations from Roman Catholic theologians who explicitly affirm that “without works” means both ceremonial and moral works.  Nor does it follow, he continues, that if the controversy between Paul and the false apostles arose because of circumcision, that ceremonial laws alone are “works of the law”.  Acts 15:5 is cited as showing, along with Galatians 5:3, that the ceremonial work of circumcision brought with it the obligation to fulfil the whole Law of Moses - and so Paul had opposed the imposition of the ceremonial requirement because of this larger implication.

The Reformed consensus is that “works of the law” includes all works generally.»47  This is not an assumption but a well thought-through conclusion reached in dialogue with an opposing opinion which saw “works of the law” as specifically ceremonial.


The Relationship of Faith and Justification

The Reformed consensus consists of several important points concerning the relationship between faith and justification.

1.  Faith is the instrumental cause of our justification and is purely receptive in appropriating the righteousness of Christ as the ground of justification.  It is the “open mouth of the soul”»48

a.   The relation of faith and justification is made plain by the prepositions used in the Greek New Testament to describe the relationship.  We are justified:

i. pistei (Romans 3:28; 5:2)

ii. ek pisteos (Galatians 2:16; Hebrews 10:38)

iii. dia pisteos (Romans 3:22; Philippians 3:9)

iv. epi te pistei (Philippians 3:9)

v. kata pistin (Hebrews 11:7)

b.  Reformed scholars, when outlining these relationships, point out that justification is never said to be "dia pistin" (that is, “because of” or “on account of” faith).»49  This is generally held in opposition to Arminian theory which posits faith as the ground of justification.»50

2. That justification which takes place objectively within the tribunal of God (active justification) logically precedes faith. This is the basis for passive justification in the heart or conscience of the sinner which logically follows faith.»51  The latter is the normal referent of the Scriptural terminology of justification.  This important distinction, absent from Lutheran thought, helps to avoid considerable confusion over the precise relationship between justification and faith.»52  It also helps to explain the difference between the objective fact of justification coram deo (before God) and the subjective and imperfect feeling of grace in the heart of the believer; and to enable a distinction to be made in the application of redemption to adults and children.»53  A debate about justification from eternity arises if active and passive justification are separated temporally; the Reformed consensus is against justification from eternity.»54

3. Responding to the common objection that the teaching of James 2:14-26 is in conflict with this doctrine, a distinction can be made between actual and declarative justification.  Actual justification is where God pardons and imputes righteousness to the sinner, whereas declarative justification occurs when a previously justified person has demonstrated their actual righteous state through obedience.»55

4. Faith alone justifies.  No mixture of faith and works of any kind is permissible.»56  This is in direct conflict with the Roman Catholic teaching on formed and unformed faith being both required for justification (formed faith being faith attended by works).

5. Faith alone justifies but the faith that justifies is not alone; that is, works play no part whatsoever in justification and yet this doctrine is not “ethically subversive”»57 but faith is generally followed by good works (in adults at least).  Justification and sanctification are not to be confounded - the distinction must be maintained - although they are inseparable.  Indeed, justification is the prerequisite for a holy life, as Calvin says, “no men can be fit for the pursuit of holiness save those who have first imbibed this doctrine.”»58


  1. The English noun “elenchus” means “logical refutation”.  Thus elenctic theology is designed to logically refute opposing positions as part of its purpose.

  2. All the comments are from the dust-jacket of the book itself.
  3. See Calvin, op.cit., pages 726-729; Turretin, op.cit., pages 633-636; Hodge, Systematic Theology Volume 3 (London: Thomas Nelson: 1873), pages 118-134; Berkof, op.cit., pages 510-511; Reymond, op.cit., pages 743-745.  The general parameters of the discussion in each theologian will be given at the start of each section.  However, I shall refrain from noting every one of them each time a note is required, for the sake of readability.  This does not imply that only the theologian cited holds this view (unless specifically noted).
  4. See especially Berkof, op.cit., page 510.
  5. The language of “proper” and “improper” use is Turretin’s, op.cit., pages 633-634.
  6. Ezekiel 16:51-52; Jeremiah 3:11; Turretin, op.cit., page 634.
  7. Romans 6:7; ibid., page 634.
  8. Luke 7:29, 35; Calvin, op.cit., page 727.
  9. Daniel 12:3 for example; Berkof, op.cit., page 510.
  10. See for example John Murray, “Appendix A: Justification” in The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) and L.L. Morris, op.cit., pages 251-298.
  11. See Reymond, op.cit., page 743: “the meaning of the term itself in the following contexts:” (emphasis added).
  12. See Hodge, op.cit., pages 117-118; Reymond, op.cit., page 745. cf. L.L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), page 253.
  13. Turretin, op.cit., page 686; Berkof, op.cit., pages 513-514; Reymond, op.cit., pages 746-747.
  14. Cf. Calvin, op.cit., page 740; Turretin, op.cit., page 686-688.
  15. See Calvin, op.cit., page 727; Turretin, op.cit., pages 656-659; Hodge, op.cit., pages 127-134; 142-151; Berkof, op.cit., pages 514-516; Reymond, op.cit., page 742.
  16. See for example, Calvin, op.cit., page 751 (III.xi.21).
  17. Hodge, op.cit., pages 133-134; cf. Turretin, op.cit., page 657 for a similar defence.
  18. As the last paragraph of Calvin, op.cit., page 727 (III.xi.2), makes abundantly clear.
  19. Turretin, op.cit., page 657.
  20. See Berkof, op.cit., pages 514-516; Hodge, op.cit., page 142.
  21. Hodge, op.cit., page 118; Berkof, op.cit., page 512; Calvin assails Osiander for confounding justification and regeneration, op.cit., page 732.
  22. Berkof, op.cit., page 515; cf. Turretin, op.cit., page 656.
  23. Turretin, op.cit., page 665; Hodge, op.cit., page 163; Berkof, op.cit., page 514.
  24. Calvin, op.cit., pages 859-861; Hodge, op.cit., page 164; Berkof, op.cit., page 515; Reymond, op.cit., pages 752-753.
  25. For example, see Reymond, op.cit., page 753.
  26. See especially Calvin, op.cit., page 739; Turretin, op.cit., page 660; Reymond, op.cit., page 742.
  27. Repeated time and again throughout Calvin, op.cit., pages 743-754 and elsewhere.  Cf. Turretin, op.cit., pages 637-646; Hodge, op.cit., pages 134-141; Berkof, op.cit., pages 523; Reymond, op.cit., pages 749-753.
  28. Cf. Hodge, op.cit., page 167.
  29. E.g. Romans 4:6; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:9.
  30. Calvin, op.cit., page 743 (emphasis added).
  31. E.g. Calvin, op.cit., page 776, 780; Turretin, op.cit., page 640; Berkof, op.cit., page 523.
  32. An Arminian category according to Hodge, op.cit., page 138.
  33. Calvin, op.cit., page 781. Cf. Article 14 of the Anglican 39 Articles.
  34. Turretin, op.cit., page 640.
  35. Reymond, op.cit., page 745.
  36. E.g. Ephesians 2:8-9; Calvin, op.cit., page 764; Turretin, op.cit., page 643.
  37. Hodge, op.cit., page 139.
  38. For answers to the charge of “legal fiction” see Turretin, op.cit., page 648; Berkof, op.cit., page 524.
  39. Cf. Reymond, op.cit., page 742 footnote 46.
  40. Calvin, op.cit., page 777.
  41. See the discussion in Calvin, op.cit., pages 749-750; Turretin, op.cit., page 641; Hodge, op.cit., pages 134-135.
  42. A distinction traceable through Aquinas  (Cf. D.A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), page 35) at least to Pelagius (see footnote 36 on page 749 of the Westminster Press edition of Calvin’s Institutes).
  43. Galatians 3:10-12, 21-22; Romans 3:20-28; 4:4-5, 15.
  44. Quotations up to this point from Calvin, op.cit., page 749.
  45. Romans 4:6 is cited; Calvin, op.cit., page 750.
  46. Romans 3:19-20.
  47. Cf. Hodge, op.cit., page 137; Reymond, op.cit., page 749.
  48. See Calvin, op.cit., page 733.
  49. See Hodge, op.cit., page 169; Berkof, op.cit., page 520; Reymond, op.cit., page 745.
  50. Especially Hodge, op.cit., pages 167-170.
  51. The distinction is clearly set out in Berkof, op.cit., pages 516-517; cf. Turretin, op.cit., page 669.
  52. See McGrath, Iustitia Dei, page 232.
  53. See the parenthetical comments of Hodge, op.cit., pages 118 (# 6) and 172 (final paragraph); Berkof, op.cit., page 518.
  54. See Turretin, op.cit., pages 682-685; Berkof, op.cit., pages 517-520; Cf. The discussion of G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pages 143-168 (especially the conclusion on page 162).
  55. See Reymond, op.cit., page 749 (incl. note 56); Berkof, op.cit., page 521; Calvin, op.cit., pages 814-817 (esp. 816).
  56. Calvin, op.cit., III.xvii.7, 8, 10 (pages 809-814);Turretin, op.cit., pages 675-682
  57. The phrase is Berkof’s, op.cit., page 524.
  58. Calvin, op.cit., pages 801.

Lee GatissAbout the Author

Lee Gatiss is the Editor of Theologian and author of Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism.