[ theologia ]
Theologia Cross Logo
Apologetics Bible Church History Miscellaneous Sacraments Soteriology Sermons Worship

Responding to Critics of the Protestant View of Justification

by Philip Schaff

From pp. 93-97 of The Principle of Protestantism

The analysis and exposition which Prof. Schaf gives of this great doctrine of justification by faith alone, is thoroughly evangelical. We commend it to our new school brethren as a mirror in which they may see the true principle of the Reformation, and thence learn how far they have lapsed towards Romanism in their denial or explaining away of the corruption of our nature by original sin, and in making justification mere pardon, to the exclusion of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

Charles Hodge, Princeton Review 17.4 / October 1845, p. 628
(From his review entitled “Schaf’s Protestantism”)

[I]t may be well, in view of the immense importance of the Protestant doctrine of justification, to notice te most acute and weighty objections that have been urged against it on the part of Roman Catholic and pseudo-Protestant, or rationalistic opposers.


One of the most common reproaches is that “the Protestant theory of justification encourages a thoughtless reliance on grace and neglect of good works.” Here, however, the curse turns into a blessing. For the same reproach was brought against the doctrine of the apostle Paul; and it serves to show consequently that we agree with him. As he could triumphantly point such calumniators to the moral exhortations contained in all his epistles and also to his own life, so do we with like confidence hold up to our opponants our symbolical books and the lives of the Reformers themselves, whose moral earnestness and untiring practical activity were such as to cast all their contemporaries into the shad.


“It is not possible that God, who is truth itself, can declare a man to be righteous, and treat him as such, when he is not such in fact.” The mere treatment involves no difficulty. Even in the sphere of the natural life, God treats us better than we deserve, causing the sun to shine and giving rain for the benefit of the ungodly as well as of the good and pious. The nature of grace, which falls, it is true, beyond the range of abstract justice, consists always in this, that the offender is released from merited punishment, and put into positive enjoyment of freedom; that being thus subdued and humbled, he may be led to pursue a better life.

Love also in general, of which grace is only a particular modification, shows in its highest utterances the very same character, without which it could never be exercised toward an enemy. When some unfortunate has fallen into the water, the philanthropist stops not to inquire, even if it be his own enemy, whether he is worthy of being rescued, but plunges at once into the stream, and by his noble, self-forgetting conduct wins the heart of him whose live he saves.

The whole difficulty then in the case before us must turn, not upon God’s treatment of the believer, but upon the idea of his declaring a man to be what he is not in fact. If, however, practice and judgment are to be saved from irreconcilable contradiction with each other, the first must involve here the supposition of the second. When God is represented by the apostle as having loved men while they were yet sinners, it does not mean that he loved them as sinners, which would be to have loved sin itself in them, whereas this is always his abomination; but he loved them as creatures, who were capable of redemption, and in this view worthy of being loved. He loved the divine nature shic was in them potentially, having reality indeed only in his own purpose, but destined, through the manifestation of his grace and love to actualize itself and become real subjectively also in man himself.

Men are declared righteous then by God, not so far as they are sinner, but so far only as they are in Christ, and have thus in this objective way the principle of righteousness in fact; and this justifying act becomes itself the occasion, by which the principle is actualized in its subject, having creative force, quickening the dead, and calling into existence that which had no existence before. The justifying grace of God does not stand over against the convicted sinner in an abstract form, but passes over to him through the medium of faith, sets him in its own element, and thus lodges in his person a life germ altogether new, in which is comprehended from the start the entire growth of holiness. So Abraham was called a father of many nations, before he was so actually. Ideally, however, in the divine plan he was such in the fullest sense.

God, before whom the dimensions of time all give way in the same vast eternity, looks upon men in their inmost nature as rooted in Christ, with whom they are brought into living union by faith. For the relation of Christ to humanity is not outward but inward and essential. He is the second Adam, the spiritual head of the race, the true center of all its individual personalities, in which only the idea of the whole is fully realized and made complete. This whole objection then proceeds upon a perfectly abstract conception of the doctrine of justification, which admits the thought of a judgment in the divine mind that is not at the same time creative; and only against such a conception of the case can it be allowed to have any force.

Many of the Lutheran theologians did indeed lean toward this extreme, in their anti-Pelagian zeal; but is was not so with the Reformed. They always acknowledged the true element here in the catholic doctrine, without sanctioning its Pelagianistic trait.* For there still remains always this great distinction, that the principle of righteousness in man as answering to the justifying act of God never flows even in part of his subjective constitution, but only and altogether from his believing union with the objective Christ, and that the actualization of this principle in his person, is itself conditioned by the declaratory act, creative at the same time, going before.

(* Compare particularly the whole 11th chapter of the third book of Calvin’s institutes; for example, section 6 where this agreement and difference are both very clearly stated: “as Christ cannot be divided into parts, so the two things, justification and sanctification, which we perceive to be united together in him, are inseparable. Whomsoever, therefore, God receives into his favor, he presents with the Spirit of adoption, whose agency forms them anew into his image. But if the brightness of the sun cannot be separated from its heat, are we therefore to say, that the earth is warmed by light and illumined by heat? Nothing can be more apposite to the matter in hand than this simile. The sun by its heat quickens and fertilizes the earth; by its rays enlightens and illumines it. Here is a mutual and undivided connection, and yet reason itself prohibits us from transferring the peculiar properties of the one to the other.”)


“It is unreasonable to ascribe all justifying and saving power to faith, and to deny such virtue to love, when the apostle Paul nevertheless, who is such great authority with Protestants, places love above faith–1 Corinthians 13.13.” We, too, proclaim love to be the highest, the always-abiding: but precisely for this reason it is not be be found in guilty man, immersed in selfishness and sin, but only in God himself, the fountain of all love. So the only way of coming to God and becoming assured of his love in Christ, through the knowledge and apprehension of which we are made first capable of love in return, is no other than faith itself; which is simply what our doctrine asserts. the fruit is better than the root; and yet this last carries the tree, and not the first. In this objection moreover, it is forgotten that all justifying and saving power, causatively considered, is lodged according to our view neither in human faith, to which we attribute only instrumental efficacy, nor in human love, but exclusively in God’s grace, that the glory of this may remain complete.


Adroitly constructed is the objection: “Faith in the Protestant view is justifying, not as a dead historical assent, but in the character of inward humility and trust, as a longing after the Redeemer, as love consequently though in its infancy; and thus the theory, to preserve itself, falls back again unwittingly to the Roman Catholic dogma.” Now we may well allow that there is an ultimate point where faith may be regarded as a constituent in the development of love, taken in its broadest sense. But unless all ideas are to lose themselves in one another promiscuously, we must distinguish and separate on the one hand, as closely as we seek connecting relations on the other. Only in the use of such reflective separation is any scientific knowledge possible. We say then that fallen man–sold und the power of selfishness, which is the very opposite of love, in order that he may come to the exercise of this grace in its true Christian, self-renouncing, self-sacrificing form–must first become conscious of the divine love in its relation to himself personally, must yield himself to Christ’s love; and this is itself the exercise of faith. The receptive element must go before the spontaneous, humble apprehension before self-subsisting action. We are always brought back accordingly to the Protestant thesis that man is justified and saved, not by the love which he exercises himself, but by the love he receives from abroad, that is, by faith.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment