The doctrine of justification addresses the most serious plight of fallen human beings – their exposure to the justice of God. As David prayed, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). No one can stand up to divine scrutiny. Most people think if they do their best to be good, that will be good enough when they come to the judgment seat of God. But the Bible says that by the works of the law no one shall be justified (Galatians 2:16).
CATHOLIC: JUSTIFICATION BASED ON INFUSED RIGHTEOUSNESS
Roman Catholics argue that “works of the law” refer only to the ceremonial laws, not the Ten Commandments or the commands of Christ. Therefore, according to Rome, people are justified by good works. People are not justified by faith alone, but by a combination of faith and good works.
For Rome, the process of justification begins with baptism, which confers upon the recipient “an infusion of grace,” which means the righteousness of Christ is poured into the soul, which enables a person to become righteous. God declares someone just and righteous only if they cooperate with infused grace by doing righteous things. Those who commit a mortal sin lose the grace of justification. But a sinner can be restored to a state of justification through the sacrament of penance. When one confesses his sins to a priest, he receives absolution, after which he must perform works of satisfaction to be restored to a state of grace. All remaining impurities in this life are purified in purgatory.
PROTESTANT: JUSTIFICATION BASED ON IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS
The Protestant Reformers argued that God declares us just, not on the basis of an imperfect righteousness infused within us, but on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us. Imputation is a legal transfer, not an infusion of grace. Our sins were imputed to Christ, not infused into Him, thereby making Him inwardly sinful. Christ was without sin, yet our guilt was imputed (transferred) to Him, which is why God treated Him as the sinner; and punished Him on the cross.
Likewise, what Christ did for us is imputed (transferred) to us, as if we did it. Christ’s righteousness is His perfect obedience and perfect death on the cross to pay for our sins. Since He did it for us, God treats us as if we did it. God treated Jesus as if He were the sinner, so He could treat us as though we were perfectly righteous.
Sanctification progressively makes us inwardly righteous, but since inward righteousness is never perfect in this life it cannot justify us. Therefore, as Martin Luther said, a justified person is simultaneously just and sinful.
To sum up: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 33).
See Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 60.
[Adapted from R.C. Sproul Everyone’s a Theologian]