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Three Central Issues in the Sixteenth Century Debate
James Buchanan     Reprinted from James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1g61), pp.128-136. Used by permission.

We here present an extract from Dr. James Buchanan's classic, The Doctrine of Justification.1

First Issue: The Nature of Justification

According to Rome

In regard to the Nature of Justification, or what that is which is denoted by the term in Scripture, the fundamental error of the Church of Rome consisted in confounding it with Sanctification. It is not enough to say, that they employ the term Justification to denote the whole of that great change which is wrought on the soul of a sinner at the time of his conversion, and which includes both the remission of his sins, and the renovation of his nature, — for in this comprehensive sense it was sometimes used by Augustine, and occasionally even by some Protestant writers; but it is further affirmed that, while Augustine distinguished these two effects of divine grace, as bearing respectively on a sinner's relation to God, and on his spiritual character, Popish writers confounded, and virtually identified, them; and thereby introduced confusion and obscurity into the whole scheme of divine truth. For if Justification were either altogether the same with Sanctification; or if, — not being entirely the same, but in some respects distinguishable from it, — it was founded and dependent on Sanctification, so as that a sinner is only justified, when, and because, and in so far as, he is sanctified; then it would follow, — that Justification, considered as an act of God, is the mere infusion, in the first instance, and the mere recognition, in the second, of a righteousness inherent in the sinner himself; and not an act of God's grace, acquitting him of guilt, delivering him from condemnation, and receiving him into His favour and friendship. It would not be a forensic or judicial proceeding terminating on man as its object, and rectifying his relation to God; but the exertion of a spiritual energy, of which man is the subject, and by which he is renewed in the spirit of his mind. Considered, again, as the privilege of believers, it would not consist in the free forgiveness of sins, and a sure title to eternal life; but in the possession of an inward personal righteousness, which is always imperfect, and often stained with sin, — which can never, therefore, amount to a full justification in the present life, as the actual privilege of any believer.

James BuchananAccording to the Reformers

In opposition to these and similar errors on this point, the Reformers held and taught that Justification is 'an act of God's free grace, whereby He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight; — that it is an act of God external to the sinner, of which he is the object, — not an inward work, of which he is the subject; — that it is a forensic and judicial change in his relation to God, such as takes place in the condition of a person accused, when he is acquitted, — or of a person condemned, when he is pardoned, —or of a person in a state of enmity, when he is reconciled and received as a friend, — not a change in his moral and spiritual character, although this must always accompany or flow from it; and that it is the present privilege of every believer, however weak his faith, and however imperfect his holiness, — for 'being justified by faith, we hove peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;' and 'in Him we hove redemption through his blood, even the remission of sins, according to the riches of His grace.' Thus widely did the two parties differ in regard to the nature of Justification.

Second Issue: The Ground of Justification

According to Rome

In regard, again, to the Ground of Justification, or what that is to which God has regard as the reason on account of which He 'justifies the ungodly,' and to which the believer also should look as the foundation of his hope, — the fundamental error of the Church of Rome consisted in substituting the inherent righteousness of the regenerate, for the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer. There might seem to be no room, in their system, for any question in regard to the ground of Justification, as something distinct from Justification itself; for if Justification be the same with Sanctification, and if Sancitification consists in righteousness, infused and inherent, then this righteousness is the matter and substance of both, rather than the ground of either. But when, instead of confounding, they made a distinction between, the two, they were in the habit of representing the infused righteousness which makes us acceptable to God, as the ground or reason of His acceptance of our persons, which is consequent upon it, — while they utterly rejected the imputed righteousness of Christ. It is true, they spoke of the merits of Christ, and ascribed some influence to His sufferings and death in connection with our justification; but they denied that His righteousness is imputed to us, so as to become the immediate ground of our acceptance with God, or the sole reason on account of which He pardons our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight. The merits of Christ were rather, according to their doctrine, the procuring cause of that regenerating grace by which we are made righteous; while the inherent personal righteousness, which is thus produced, is the real proximate ground of our justification. At the best, they only admitted Christ's righteousness to a partnership with our own, in the hope that whatever was defective in ours might be made up, and supplemented, by the perfection of His. But that His righteousness imputed is the sole and all-sufficient ground of our justification, which neither requires nor admits of any addition being made to it in the shape either of suffering or obedience, and which is effectual, for that end, without the aid of any other righteousness, infused and inherent, — they strenuously denied. This fundamental error in regard to the ground of a sinner's justification, explains and accounts for many collateral or subordinate errors, — such as, their doctrine of a first and second Justification: a first Justification, by the original infusion of righteousness; and a second Justification, by that same righteousness remaining inherent and become actual; — their doctrine that works done before faith are excluded by the Apostles, but not works done after faith; — and their doctrine that Paul and James can only be harmonized on the supposition that Paul speaks of the one, and James of the other. All these doctrines rested on the same fundamental principle, namely, that the ground of our justification is a righteousness personal and inherent, — procured, it may be, by the merits of Christ, and infused into us by the regenerating grace of His Spirit, but becoming really and properly our own, just as any other attribute of character is our own, and securing our forgiveness and acceptance with God by its intrinsic worth.

According to the Reformers

In opposition to these and similar errors on this point, the Reformers held and taught, that we were justified 'only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us,' or put down to our account; and they based their doctrine on such considerations as these, — that a righteousness of some kind is indispensable, if God is to accept us as righteous, — that it must be such a righteousness as is adequate to meet and satisfy all the requirements of that perfect Law, which is God's rule in judgment, — that its requirements, both penal and preceptive, were fulfilled by the obedience, passive and active, of the Lord Jesus Christ, — that He thus became 'the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth in His name,' — that our inherent personal righteousness, even were it perfect, could not cancel the guilt of our past sins, or offer any satisfaction to divine justice on account of them, — that so far from being perfect, even in the regenerate, it is defiled by indwelling sin, and impaired by actual transgression, — and that the work of the Spirit in us, indispensable and precious as it is for other ends, was not designed to secure our justification in any other way than by applying to us the righteousness of Christ, and enabling us to receive and rest upon it by faith. Thus widely did the two parties differ in regard to the ground of Justification.

Third Issue: The Means of Justification

According to Rome

In regard, again, to the Means of Justification, — or what that is through which God bestows, and man receives, forgiveness of sin, and a title to eternal life, — the fundamental error of the Church of Rome consisted in denying that we are justified by that faith which receives and rests on Christ alone for salvation, as He is freely offered to us in the Gospel. They affirmed that we are justified, not simply by faith in Christ, for faith might exist where there is no justification, but by faith informed with charity, or love, which is the germ of new obedience; — that this faith is first infused by baptism, so as to delete all past sin, — original sin, in the case of infants, and both original sin and actual sin in the case of adults, duly prepared to receive it, —while it is restored or renewed, in the event of post-baptismal sin, by confession and absolution, which effectually deliver the sinner from all punishment, except such as is endured in penance, or in purgatory. This general statement embraces their whole doctrine on this part of the subject, and comprehends under it several distinct positions, each of which became the occasion of intricate and protracted discussion. The main questions related to — the nature of saving faith, — the reason of its efficacy as a means of Justification, — and the respective uses or functions of faith and the sacraments. The real bearing of these questions, as to the nature and effects of Faith, on the general doctrine of Justification, will not be discerned or appreciated aright, unless we bear in mind, that they were all connected with, and directed to the establishment of, the fundamental principle of the Romish system respecting the ground of our forgiveness and acceptance with God, as being a righteousness inherent in man, and not the righteousness of Christ imputed. This being the grand leading doctrine, every other must be brought in accordance with it, and so explained as to contribute to its support. Accordingly faith, to which so much efficacy and importance are everywhere ascribed in Scripture, was, first of all, defined as a mere intellectual belief, or assent to revealed truth, such as an unrenewed mind might acquire in the exercise of its natural faculties, without the aid of divine grace, and described as having, in itself, no necessary connection with salvation, but as being only one of seven antecedent dispositions or qualifications, which always precede, in the case of adults, but are not invariably followed by, Justification. This faith, in order to be effectual and saving, must be 'informed with charity or love;' and forthwith that which was barren before becomes fruitful, and, being fruitful, it justifies, not because it rests on the righteousness of Christ, but because it is itself our inherent personal righteousness, the product of a new birth, and the germ of a new creation. It was regarded as the seminal principle of holiness in heart and life, and, as such, the ground of out justification. Some admitted that it was procured for us by the merits of Christ, and is infused into us by the grace of His Spirit; but they held that it exists as a subjective principle in our own hearts, and secures by its own intrinsic worth, without any righteousness imputed, the forgiveness of our sins, and the acceptance of our persons and services. The 'faith informed by charity,' which constitutes our righteousness, cannot, of course, be a means of receiving Justification, since it is itself the substance of that Gospel blessing; and accordingly Justification was said to be conveyed on God's part, and received on man's, through the medium, not of faith, but of the sacraments. The sinner, being regenerated by baptism, and purified, from time to time, by confession and penance, was held to be justified, — not by faith in Christ, as the means, or by the righteousness of Christ, as the ground, of his forgiveness and acceptance, — but by inherent righteousness, sacramentally infused and nourished, with or without the exercise of an explicit faith in Christ and His finished work.

According to the Reformers

In opposition to these and similar errors on this point, the Reformers held and taught, that we are 'justified by faith alone,' simply because faith receives and rests upon Christ alone for salvation, and apprehends and appropriates His righteousness as the ground of acceptance. They admitted the existence of a mere historical faith, such as men might acquire in the exercise of their natural faculties; for this is recognized in Scripture; but they affirmed that there is a faith, — clearly distinguishable from it by sure scriptural tests, — which is immediately and invariably effectual in securing the pardon of a sinner and his acceptance with God, — a faith, which does not consist in the bare assent of the understanding, but involves the cordial consent of the whole mind, — which not only apprehends, but appropriates, Christ and all His benefits, — receiving and resting upon Him alone for salvation, — and looking to His righteousness as its only prevailing plea; which, wherever it exists, and in whatever degree, though it were small even as a grain of mustard-seed, has an immediate and certain efficacy, simply because it unites the believer to Christ, and makes him a partaker of His righteousness; and which, when it has once been implanted in the soul, will never be suffered to die out, but will spring up unto life eternal. They held this faith to be necessary to salvation; but they held it also to be immediately, invariably, and infallibly effectual for salvation, in so much that he in whom it exists may be fully assured that 'he has passed from death unto life, and that he will never come into condemnation.' They did not deny, on the contrary they affirmed, that this faith 'worketh by love,' and through love, as the main spring of new obedience, produces all 'the peaceable fruits of righteousness;' but its justifying efficacy they ascribed, not, as the Church of Rome did, to its 'enclosing charity, as a ring encloses a diamond,' which enhances its intrinsic worth, but to its 'enclosing Christ, the pearl of great price,' whose righteousness alone makes it of any avail. They joyfully acknowledged it to be a spiritual grace, a gift of God, and one of the fruits of His Spirit, which is in its own nature acceptable and pleasing to Him; but they regarded the infusion of this living faith as the means by which God applies to men individually the redemption which was purchased by Christ; and as a means admirably adapted to this end, just because it directs the sinner to look out of himself to Christ alone as his Saviour, — to relinquish all self-righteous confidence in anything that he has done, or can do, — and to cast himself entirely on the free grace of God and the finished work of the Redeemer. They rejected the whole doctrine of sacramental Justification, because they learned from Scripture that, as Abraham was justified, under the Old Dispensation, before he was circumcised, and received circumcision only as 'a sign and seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised,'2 so, under the New Dispensation, Justification is inseparably connected with faith, and not with baptism, insomuch that every believer is justified before, and even without, being baptized, while many are baptized who are neither regenerated, nor justified, nor saved. Thus widely did the two parties differ in regard to the means of Justification.


1 Born in 1804, James Buchanan became Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Church College in Edinburgh. Buchanan's The Doctrine of Justification is classic of English Protestantism. We highly recommend it to our readers. It is published by The Banner of Truth Trust, P.O. Box 652, Carlisle, Pennsylvania 17013.
2 Rom iv 11.