In the Weeds of Justification by Faith Alone: Some Background and Suggested Resources

Historically, in the Western Christian tradition, the good news of the saving message of Jesus Christ has been linked closely to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.[1] In short, according to the Reformed tradition, upon the exercise of faith, a person is united to Christ by the powerful working of the Spirit. Having been united to the crucified and resurrected Messiah, the believer is forgiven and declared righteous. Forgiveness, then, is on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus at the cross where he paid the sinners debt (e.g. Col 2:14). Being counted righteous is on the basis of Jesus’ perfect righteousness imputed to the sinner (e.g. Phil 3:8–9). Thus, by grace through Spirit-wrought faith (cf. Eph 2:8–9), a person stands before God as forgiven and righteous on the ground of the person and work of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 4:6–8).

The above understanding of justification is consistent with the Reformed view (contra Roman Catholicism). Though the Reformation included a diverse body of Christians, and it is somewhat difficult to speak of “the” Reformed position on any doctrine, it seems a consensus was reached on justification in the early 16th century. Alister McGrath notes, “despite the diversity within reforming communities in Germany and Switzerland during the first two decades of the sixteenth century, a broad consensus seems to have emerged by the 1530’s concerning both the nature of justification and the context in which it was set.”[2] In addition, Korey D. Mass writes, “Amid doctrinal confusion, the Reformers relatively quickly reached consensus on the fundamental nature and means of justification. Justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ’s imputed righteousness alone came to be embraced by and enshrined in the confessions of Lutheran and Reformed alike.”[3]

Before mentioning the particulars of justification, however, we should note that the doctrine did not appear on the theological landscape out of nowhere in the 16th century. The doctrine of justification has been recognized as an all-important point of theology throughout church history.[4] Even before the Reformation, justification by grace through faith is asserted by both Patristic and Medieval theologians, though a fully orbed theology of justification as presented by the Reformers was still a future reality. Nonetheless, in the early church, justification by faith, apart from works of the law, is regularly asserted.[5] Clement of Rome wrote that we “are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men…”[6] Irenaeus writes, “Abraham himself [and other patriarchs] were justified…through faith in God’s promise.”[7] Ambrose states, “Therefore let no one boast of his works, because no one can be justified by his works; but he who is just receives it as a gift…It is faith, therefore, which delivers us by the blood of Christ…”[8] The examples are easily multiplied. The point here is that justification by faith is not a theological construct invented in the 16th-century, though the development of the doctrine certainly comes to maturity in the reformational era.

Korey Maas notes that “the church of the Late Middle Ages confessed no single, dogmatically defined doctrine concerning the manner by which individuals are saved.”[9] When it comes to justification in particular, according to McGrath, “an astonishing diversity of views on the justification of man before God were in circulation.”[10] In general, however, Medieval Catholicism tended to define justification in transformative terms. That is, Catholic theologians, following the lead of Augustine in the 5th century, viewed justification as a process in which God transformed the sinner, making the sinner inherently righteous. This infused or inherent righteousness served as the formal cause of God’s justifying a sinner. Therefore, in terms of theological categories, Medieval theologians tended to collapse justification and sanctification into one. McGrath believes this difference between transformation and declaration is the decisive distinction between Medieval and Reformational views. He writes the following:

The notional distinction, necessitated by a forensic understanding of justification, between the external act of God in pronouncing sentence, and the internal process of regeneration, along with the associated insistence upon the alien and external nature of justifying righteousness, must be considered to be the most reliable historical consideration of Protestant doctrines of justification.[11]

In other words, in a Medieval Catholic view, justification means that God graciously makes a sinner righteous. On the basis of this internal transformation and therefore inherent righteousness, God justifies the sinner.[12] This view finds root in the thought of Augustine. For Augustine, justification is understood as an act of God’s grace, to be sure. Augustine would write, “It is not therefore by the law, nor is it by their own will, that they are justified; but they are justified freely by His grace…”[13] Yet, “Augustine is also the progenitor of the medieval view of justification as a process or renewal (i.e. sanctification). Augustine clearly interprets justification as making righteous.”[14] Thomas Aquinas, writings hundreds of years later, and the most renowned Catholic theologian of the Middle Ages, developed his doctrine of justification in Augustinian terms, though Horton notes that the terminology he employs is Aristotelian. That is, justification, for Aquinas, is “a motion (motus) from injustice to rectitude.”[15]  That is, justification is understood as a process (i.e. processus iustificationis).[16]  This view of justification is standard fare for Medieval theology and serves as the theological backdrop for the Reformation.

In contrast to understanding justification as a process, the Reformational tradition opted to view justification as declarative while also rejecting the move to collapse justification and sanctification into one. God indeed brings sinners to life (Eph 2:5) and transforms them into new creations (cf. 2 Cor 5:17). However, God does not justify a sinner on the ground of inherent righteousness on their part. Instead, faith unites the sinner to Jesus and on the basis of their union with Christ, God reckons the righteousness of Christ as belonging to the sinners account. Thus, the basis of God’s justifying declaration for the Reformed is the righteousness of Jesus imputed to the sinner. The distinction between the Roman view and the Reformed view has historically been referred to as a distinction between an infused righteousness and an imputed righteousness. The difference is more than semantic. We are either counted righteous because we really are righteous or we are counted righteous because God has imputed Jesus’ righteousness to our account. This latter view is the historically Reformed view.

Though there are complex reasons for the Protestant Reformation, doctrine was a central concern. Matthew Barrett writes, “most fundamentally, the Reformation was a theological movement, caused by doctrinal concerns.”[17] At the heart of the doctrinal controversy was the subject of the gospel, cast in terms of justification by faith alone.[18] It is not surprising, then, to find Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, and their theological children (e.g. Francis Turretin, Peter van Mastricht, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, etc.) spilling large amounts of ink in order to clarify, defend, and promote justification sola fide. On this article, the church would stand or fall.

Perhaps, though, we are getting too much into the weeds with this historical introduction. The point is simply that the biblical doctrine of justification is something theologians in every era of church history have wrestled with to one degree or another. Today, the doctrine of justification is being discussed across denominational aisles. Protestant-Catholic dialogues are taking fresh looks at justification.[19] The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has sought to rework justification in light of the work of E. P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. Lutheran discussions over the doctrine continue to take form.[20] Thus, justification is by no means a settled doctrine. Furthermore, how we understand the nature of justifying faith is something evangelicals are discussing. Within the realm of New Testament (NT) studies, some scholars are wrestling with pistis (faith) and how we have understood the word itself.[21] Therefore, given the discussions around justification broadly, I believe pastors should keep up-to-date with the conversation.

Towards that end, here are several resources that are worth your time:

  1. Michael Horton, Justification (two volumes).
  2. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei.
  3. Matthew Barret, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.
  4. John Calvin, Justification by Faith
  5. Tom Schreiner, Faith Alone
  6. John Piper, The Future of Justification



[1] The Eastern tradition has tended to speak of salvation in different terms. Namely, Eastern theology has leaned into the concept of theosis, or deification as the controlling idea of salvation. “Unlike the Western Church, Eastern Orthodoxy has never seen justification as a central category by which to express the soteriological process” (James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., Justification: Five Views, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), loc. 396 [Kindle]. This is not to say that Eastern theologians reject the doctrine of justification per se, but that they do not believe the traditional reformed view articulates the doctrine in precise terms. See Bradley Nassif and James J. Stamoolis, eds., Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 187–188.

[3] Korey D. Maas, “Justification by Faith Alone,” in Matthew Barrett, ed., Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 511.

[4] For a history of justification, see McGrath, Iustitia Dei. Michael Scott Horton, Justification, Vol 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018). For an overview of every era in short order, see Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).

[5] According to Michael Horton, “In a recent essay, Nick Needham has provided a helpful collection of patristic quotations on justification. First, the common usage is forensic. “It would seem a minor strand of patristic teaching sees justification as meaning moral transformation, what Protestant theology calls ‘regeneration’ or ‘sanctification’” (Horton, Justification, Vol 1., 82.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 76.

 [8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Maas, 513.

[10] Ibid., 514.

[11] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 186.

[12] Augustine sets this trajectory and, according to McGrath, he provides three aspects of justification. “[F]irst, the washing of regeneration, by which our sins are forgiven; then confession of our sins, the guild of which has been remitted; thirdly, through our prayers, in which we say “Forgive us our sins” (McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 71). Notice how justification includes the theological category of regeneration. It is this type of collapsing of theological categories that the Reformers will reject. Though regeneration, justification, sanctification, and future glorification are inseparable, they are distinct theological realities.

[13] Michael Horton, Justification, vol 1., 86.

[14] Ibid., 88.

[15] Ibid., 101.

[16] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 71.

[17] Matthew Barrett, “Introduction,” Reformation Theology, 44.

[18] Timothy George writes, “Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther this was not simply one doctrine among others but “the summary of all Christian doctrine” “the article by which the church stands or falls” (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 25th anniversary, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2013), 63).

[19] A. N. S. Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, Scholars’ Editions in Theology (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). The Reformanda Initiative is another ministry engaging Evangelicals and Catholics in dialogue. According to their website, “Reformanda exists to identify, unite, equip, and resource evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical Church and to communicate the Gospel” (

[20] The “Finnish” School.

[21] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017); Matthew W. Bates, Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019); Nijay K. Gupta, Paul and the Language of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020).


11 thoughts on “In the Weeds of Justification by Faith Alone: Some Background and Suggested Resources

  1. Scripture says God saves us, i.e. through His Grace, through faith (Eph. 2:8) and through Sanctification (2 Thes. 2:13). In other words, according to Scripture salvation is a process. Hence, justification, a prerequisite of salvation must be a process as well. As you pointed out Catholics and all Christians before Reformation have no problem with the statement “we are justified by faith” – without the word “alone”.

    Scripture says the righteous shall go to eternal life (Mat. 25:46), not because they are counted as righteous through faith (as taught by the Reformers), but because they are righteous as they do acts that makes them righteous (Mat. 25:35-36), as defined in 1 John 3:7. This is not salvation by works because our ability to do things that makes us righteous (1 John 3:7) comes from and is only possible by grace from God through Christ as Scriptures says: apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

    The Reformers taught that we use alien righteousness of Christ accepted by faith alone imputed on us, covering our unrighteousness. Yet Scripture says in Ezekiel 18:20: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. In other words, according to Scripture righteousness and wickedness are not transferrable.

    • Hi. Thanks for the comment and for engaging the post. A few things in response.

      First, I can grant that salvation is a process. That does not mean, however, that each moment in that process is a process in itself. For instance, regeneration is also a part of the process of being saved on the final day. That does not, however, require that the new birth is a drawn-out process. Instead, we are dead and then, in a moment in time, God brings the dead to life (e.g. Eph 2:4–5). To say that salvation is a process does not mean that each part, like “justification,” is itself a process.

      Second, your quotation of Matt 25 does not necessitate that the ground or “formal cause” of justification is inherent righteousness. Instead, Jesus says the “righteous” will inherit the kingdom. Agreed. Yet, the question is whether or not the inherent righteousness is the ground or formal cause of our justification. I do not take Matt 25 talking about justification specifically but salvation more broadly. Furthermore, the Reformation tradition does not negate the reality that sanctification/transformation is necessary. Certainly, God transforms those who are born again as we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). As new creations, we move along in the process of sanctification, growing in holiness. The question is not whether or not we are being sanctified, but whether or not our own righteousness is the ground of our justification. Again, I think Rome confuses justification and sanctification, collapsing into one two things that should remain distinct (though not separate). In short, he unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom and the righteous will. That’s true. Nothing in that statement, however, demands a Roman Catholic understanding of justification.

      Third, Ezekiel 18 generally means that each will reap what they sow. However, the issue is not that the righteousness of Christ is transferred to us as though it were a substance that crossed a room from him to me. Instead, the idea of headship, of Jesus being our new covenant representative, and our being found “in him,” means that God reckons his righteousness as belonging to us (in the same way we are counted sinful/guilty in Adam; see Rom 5) “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8–9).

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I do not suppose we will bring Rome and Geneva together in this thread, but perhaps we can understand the issues a bit more clearly. 🙂

      • Following Reformers you believe that justification is one time event is through faith alone. The phrase “justified by faith” appears in Rom. 3:28, 5:1, Gal. 2:16, 3:24. NT was written in Greek and that phrase is written in passive present tense (Rom. 3:28) and passive aorist tense (the other three). If justification is to b one time event and is completed by faith alone then Paul would write that phrase in passive perfect tense. Unlike that of English, Greek passive perfect tense indicates completed action described by the verb in the past with continuing results to the present.

        Catholic do not dent that there is righteousness that comes through faith, but a s Scripture says in 1 John 3:7 we are righteous because we do what is right (not only by having faith in Christ), which is only possible by grace through Christ (John 15:5) as Scripture says through Him we are made righteous (Rom. 5:19). Scripture nowhere says that through Christ we are counted as righteous, i.e. using perfect righteousness of Christ imputed on us covering our unrighteousness. Through Adam we are made sinner sinners (Rom. 5:19), we are not counted as sinners as you wrote – that will contradict Ezekiel 18:20: The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.

        Catholics have no problem with Phil 3:8-9 – we do not produce our own righteousness. Our righteousness does come from God through Christ.

        The concept of imputed righteousness implies that you use alien or external righteousness of Christ covering your unrighteousness. Thus when you die, instead of looking at your unrighteousness, God will see perfect righteousness of Christ and therefore let you enter heaven. The famous saying is “we enter heaven based solely on what Christ did on the cross, accepted by faith alone and not based on anything we did”. Catholics, on the other hand will say “we enter heaven based on what Christ did on the cross AND what He (and God) did in us, i.e He transforms us from our unrighteous state to righteous one.

      • Again, thanks for the reply.

        First, your point about the Greek text is perceptive. However, as even you acknowledge, passages such as Rom 5:1 are written in the aorist passive (“having been justified by faith” [indicating past/completed action]). Yet, even without Rom 5:1, for example, I think your comments about Rom 3:28 need a bit of nuance. First, the verb is 3:28 is passive because “we” are receiving the action (God the active agent who justifies). Second, the present tense does not rule out a completed event. In fact, in regard to the aspect of the present tense, as Daniel Wallace notes, “the present tense is internal (that is, it portrays the action from inside of the event, without special regard for beginning or end), but it makes no comment as to fulfillment (or completion)” (Wallace, Greek Grammar, 514). Also, there is the category of Gnomic present, where the “action or state continues without time limits” (Wallace, 523). Here, might it be that the “state of being justified” continues in the present moment, and thus Paul can speak of being presently justified by faith, apart from works of the law? Or, it could simply be an example of the historical present (see Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament). So, the grammar requires a bit more work. I think Paul is saying, in Gal 328, that we are presently justified (not “being justified”) by faith, not by “works of the law.” That is, my present state (and future remaining state) of justification is based on my faith in Jesus, not by my keeping the law of Moses.

        Second, your use of 1 John 3 does, indeed, speak of our being righteous. Yet, the text is not speaking of justification. Instead, it testifies to the reality that we are changed, new creations in Christ. The Reformational tradition does not deny this. As Calvin notes “he Apostle shows here that newness of life is testified by good works.” This does not answer the question, however, as to the “formal cause” of our justification. It simply says that those who are in Christ will live new creational lives. (see this post, from a former Catholic, to get to the heart of the issue:

        Third, I’m simply not sure how else to read Phil 3 other than to see that my righteousness is not “my own” but “that which comes through faith in Christ” (his righteousness). I stand clothed in his righteousness, not my own. That, friend, is the divergence between us.


      • We disagree with each other, which is fine – as long as we do not caricature each other (which we do not).

        To clarify Catholics do believe that our righteousness comes from God through Christ but as you are aware it is infused, not imputed, and not through faith alone because Scripture also says God saves us through sanctification.

        You separate sanctification from justification, which means the latter is one time event (Berkhof: Systematic Theology, page 513). If you read Rom 3:28, beings sanctified is missing. No problem for Catholics who consider sanctification as part of justification.

        1 John 3:7 does scripturally define criteria of a righteous person. In Greek the word justification and righteous have the same root and closely related. Thus Catholics understand (Greek) verb “to justify” to mean “to make one righteous”, while you understand it to mean “to declare one to be righteous”.

        Even the Greek grammar sources you quoted do not support the teaching that justification is completed by faith alone in the past and we remain justified ever since – that is what the Reformers taught but it is not supported by Greek tenses either present or aorist ones.

        Former Catholic is not in the position to explain what Catholics believe – you will not rely on explanation of Christianity written by former Christian, won’t you?. You are welcome to read what I wrote on the same issue at:

        Click to access justification12apr2020.pdf

      • Vivator, thanks for responding again. I won’t work through the issues as I think it is clear where we part ways. I’ll give your document a look. Thanks for passing it along. And thanks for the discussion.


      • Vivator, I appreciate your thoughtful engagement on this point. But I think you are arguing from the grammar in an overly simplistic way. It is dangerous to say that the only way an author can speak of an event in the past that has ongoing implications is to use the Greek perfect. As Jonathon noted, the Greek tense system is not so monolithic and there are numerous ways an author could express a concept grammatically, just as there are in English.

  2. Pastor Woodyard, thanks sincerely for the thoughtful discussion and your charitable manner. Much of the conversation is beyond my comprehension, but I hope all believers draw ever nearer to the Lord. As you rightly point out, over time, there has been a disunity of views on the doctrine of justification. Is it your understanding, though, that Dr. McGrath has changed his long-held views on what the consensus of early Greek church fathers believed in this regard?

    I am in way over my head in attempting to sort this out, but it seems McGrath concedes the early church held a position that justification involved transformative infusion of the believer, and not imputed righteousness. McGrath suggests, I believe, that there has been mistaken translation by some earnest Reformers…..I realize there are many areas of honest disagreement among thoughtful and holy people, but it would be a tragedy if the preeminent stumbling block between Christians was caused by a misunderstanding. In any case, I commend you on your ministry and quest for truth, Pastor Woodyard. God’s Blessings to you.

    • Dan,

      My sincere apologies for the delay. One of our other contributors let me know that this comment was here. As for your question, I believe McGrath and theologians at large readily agree that the early church believed justification was a transformative term rather than merely judicial (with much of the misunderstanding due to Augustine). However, I would point towards Nick Needham and his chapter in The Doctrine on Which The Church Stands or Falls (ed. Matthew Barrett) to note some challenges to a monolithic understanding of at least the medieval church in this regard. I do believe the transformative understanding of justification (that is, collapsing it with sanctification) is more than a mere misunderstanding and has real consequences for the gospel.

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