Faculty Statement on Justification

The Reformation doctrine of justification has undergone severe criticism in recent decades. Challenges have come from three different sources. First, a number of ecumenical discussions have offered more ambiguous expressions on justification than the Reformation doctrine in the interests of church unity and have implicitly rejected the Reformation teaching as too divisive. The statements “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and “The Gift of Salvation” are examples of such ecumenical compromise. Second, some biblical scholars have argued that Luther and Calvin misunderstood what Paul was actually teaching and so constructed a false doctrine of justification. The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” offers such an argument. Third, some who claim to be Reformed suggest that too many Reformed people have a Lutheran view of justification and need to develop a distinctively Reformed view of justification. These critics usually claim that they accept the Reformed confessions, yet at the same time claim that Reformed theology needs to be changed and clarified to be distinctive. Such critics, called neonomians in the seventeenth century, today are perhaps better labeled covenant moralists.

Our testimony is directed primarily to this third group who claim to be genuinely Reformed. These covenant moralists teach, contrary to the Reformed confessions and/or historic Reformed conviction, some or all of the following:

  • that the Reformation doctrine of justification is not fully biblical;
  • that the Lutherans and Calvinists have different doctrines of justification;
  • that the Reformation misunderstood Paul on justification;
  • that justification is not by faith alone, but by faithfulness, i.e. trust in Christ and obedience;
  • that the idea of merit as a way of explaining the work of Christ for us is unbiblical;
  • that Christ died for our sins but he did not keep the law perfectly in our place (his active obedience);
  • that Christ does not impute his active obedience to us;
  • that obedience or good works is not only the fruit or evidence of faith, but is also part of the ground or instrument of justification;
  • that our justification is in some way dependent on the final judgment of our works.

As the faculty of Westminster Seminary California we believe that we must issue this testimony especially in relation to those who claim to be Reformed in their attack on the Reformation doctrine of justification and who claim to uphold the teaching of the Reformed confessions.

The confusion found in our confessional Reformed churches among some ministers, elders and members has reached an alarming level. We recognize that the confessions are standards subordinate to the Holy Scripture. Nevertheless it is our conviction that in them, the Reformed churches have summarized the correct understanding of Scripture.

The contemporary confusion in the churches may be due, in part, to a lack of familiarity with our confessions. Therefore, we hope that by highlighting certain of their statements and commenting on them we will encourage the Reformed churches to uphold the biblical truth presented in them. Our purpose is not to supplement the confessions, which are clear and comprehensive in themselves. Rather we want to underscore the obvious elements of the confessions that the critics seem to ignore or deny.

The Human Condition is Sin

The seriousness of our lost condition shows us that we need a righteousness that only God can provide.

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Question and Answer 5: “…I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.”
    Q and A 8: “…we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil.”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 14: “…man is but a slave to sin….”
  • Canons of Dort
    III-IV,3: “…all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto….”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    6,6: “Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God…, doth…bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death….”

The Work of Christ

The righteousness that sinners need must be the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, the righteousness of both his sacrificial suffering (passive obedience) and his perfect life (active obedience).

A. Passive Obedience

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 56: “That, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long….”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 21: “We believe that Jesus Christ…hath presented himself in our behalf before his Father, to appease his wrath by his full satisfaction, by offering himself on the tree of the cross, and pouring out his precious blood to purge away our sins….”

B. Active Obedience

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 60: “…the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me….”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 22: “Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.”
    “…Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness.”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    8,5: “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself…hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven….”
    11,1: “…imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them….”
    11,3: “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified…and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead….”
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
    Q and A 55: “Christ maketh intercession…in the merit of his obedience and satisfaction on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers….”
    Q and A 70: “…he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight…only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ….”

The Merit of Christ

Our confessions repeatedly speak of the work of Christ as meritorious in the sight of God. (The idea that sinners can merit anything from God is rejected explicitly: Heidelberg Catechism Q and A 60, 63 and 86; Belgic Confession arts. 23; Canons of Dort II, 7, V, 8; Westminster Confession of Faith 16, 5; Westminster Larger Catechism Q and A 193.)

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 21: “…everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merit.”
    Q and A 84: “…all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits….”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 22: “…faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits….”
    Art. 24: “…we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?)….our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death or our Savior.”
    Art. 35: “…Christ communicates himself with all his benefits to us, and gives us there [at the Lord’s Supper] to enjoy both himself and the merits of his sufferings and death….”
  • Canons of Dort
    Rejection of Errors I, 3: “…the pleasure of God and the merits of Christ….”
    Rejection of Errors II, 1: “…of the wisdom of the Father and of the merits of Jesus Christ….”
    Rejection of Errors II, 3: Dort rejected the error of those “Who teach: That Christ by his satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith….”
    Rejection of Errors II, 4: “…we by faith, in as much as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved….”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    17,2: “…the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ….:
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
    Q and A 55: “Christ maketh intercession…in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth….”
    Q and A 174: “…feeding on him by faith…, trusting in his merits….”


The righteousness of Christ is reckoned or imputed to sinners, not infused or worked in them, for their justification.

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 60: “…though my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me to perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 22: “…Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness.”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    11,1: “Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth: 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…by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them….”
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
    Q and A 71: “…in as much as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith….”
  • Westminster Shorter Catechism
    Q and A 33: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

The Role of Faith

Faith and faith alone is the instrument that looks away from self to Jesus and receives the imputation of his perfect righteousness.

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 61: “Why do you say that you are righteous only by faith? Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 22: “…if all things are in Him,…then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.…we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness….And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    7,3: “…He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved….”
    11,2: “Faith, thus receiving and resting in Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification….”
    14,2: “…the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life….”
  • Westminster Shorter Catechism
    Q and A 30: “The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”

Justification and Sanctification

Our confessions show how justification and sanctification are present together in the redeemed, but are clearly distinct from one another.

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 86: “Since, then, we are delivered from our misery by grace alone, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we yet do good works? Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His benefits….”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 24: “These works, as they proceed from the good root of faith are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by His grace. Nevertheless they are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works….”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    11,2: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
    Q and A 77: “Wherein do justification and sanctification differ? Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace….”
    In justification “sin is pardoned;” in sanctification “it is subdued…”
    Justification “doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation;” sanctification “is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.”

The Christian’s Sanctification

Sanctification is a work of God’s renewing grace by which Christians become more holy over the course of their lives while still confronting real sin in their lives — making it impossible for even our best works to stand in the face of perfect judgment.

A. Real Progress in Sanctification

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 86: “…Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, renews us also by his Holy Spirit after his own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God….”
    Q and A 114: “…with earnest purpose they [the converted] begin to live, not only according to some, but according to all the commandments of God.”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    13, 1: “They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
  • Westminster Shorter Catechism
    Q and A 35: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”

B. Continuing Problem with Sin

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 62: “…the righteousness which can stand before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly conformable to the divine law, while even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”
    Q and A 114: “…even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience….”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 24: “…we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them.”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    13,2 “This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part….”
    16,2 “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith….”
    16,5 “…and as they [good works] are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.”
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
    Q and A 78: “…their [believers’] best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.”

Justification and Final Judgment

Justification occurs when one comes to true faith, giving peace of conscience and assurance of eternal life in the present. God’s final judgment is not the justification of his own, but their vindication and perfection.

  • Heidelberg Catechism
    Q and A 59: “But what does it profit you now that you believe all this? That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir to eternal life.”
  • Westminster Larger Catechism
    Q and A 77: Justification “doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation….”
    Q and A 90: “At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted….”
  • Belgic Confession
    Art. 37: “…this judgment is…most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and elect; because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labor and trouble which they have borne.…the faithful and elect shall be crowned with glory and honor; and the Son of God will confess their names before God His Father…; all tears shall be wiped from their eyes; and their cause which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates as heretical and impious will then be known to be the cause of the Son of God. And for a gracious reward, the Lord will cause them to possess such a glory as never entered into the heart of man to conceive.”
  • Westminster Confession of Faith
    33,2:”The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient.”

The doctrine of justification taught in the Reformed confessions is a faithful summary of the biblical teaching, is necessary for the faithful preaching of the Gospel in the churches and is foundational to all Christian assurance and holy living.