The Very Heart of the Reformation

The Very Heart of the Reformation

Written by R.C. Sproul |
Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Protestantism really teaches a double imputation. Our sin is imputed to Jesus and His righteousness is imputed to us. In this twofold transaction, we see that God does not compromise His integrity in providing salvation for His people. Rather, He punishes sin fully after it has been imputed to Jesus. This is why He is able to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” as Paul writes in Romans 3:26. So, my sin goes to Jesus and His righteousness comes to me. This is a truth worth dividing the church. This is the article on which the church stands or falls, because it is the article on which we all stand or fall.

At the very heart of the controversy in the sixteenth century was the question of the ground by which God declares anyone righteous in His sight. The psalmist asked, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). In other words, if we have to stand before God and face His perfect justice and perfect judgment of our performance, none of us would be able to pass review. We all would fall, because as Paul reiterates, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). So, the pressing question of justification is how can an unjust person ever be justified in the presence of a righteous and holy God?

The Roman Catholic view is known as analytical justification. This means that God will declare a person just only when, under His perfect analysis, He finds that he is just, that righteousness is inherent in him. The person cannot have that righteousness without faith, without grace, and without the assistance of Christ. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, true righteousness must be present in the soul of a person before God will ever declare him just.

Whereas the Roman view is analytical, the Reformation view is that justification is synthetic. A synthetic statement is one in which something new is added in the predicate that is not contained in the subject. If I said to you, “The bachelor was a poor man,” I have told you something new in the second part of the sentence that was not already contained in the word bachelor. All bachelors are men by definition, but not all bachelors are poor men. There are many wealthy bachelors. Poverty and wealth are concepts that are not inherent in the idea of bachelorhood. So, when we say, “The bachelor was a poor man,” there is a synthesis, as it were.

When we say that the Reformation view of justification is synthetic, we mean that when God declares a person to be just in His sight, it is not because of what He finds in that person under His analysis. Rather, it is on the basis of something that is added to the person. That something that is added, of course, is the righteousness of Christ. This is why Luther said that the righteousness by which we are justified is extra nos, meaning “apart from us” or “outside of us.” He also called it an “alien righteousness,” not a righteousness that properly belongs to us, but a righteousness that is foreign to us, alien to us. It comes from outside the sphere of our own behavior. With both of these terms, Luther was speaking about the righteousness of Christ.

If any word was at the center of the firestorm of the Reformation controversy and remains central to the debate even in our day, it is imputation. Numerous meetings were held between Protestants and Roman Catholics to try to repair the schism that was taking place in the sixteenth century. Theologians from Rome met with the magisterial Reformers, trying to resolve the difficulties and preserve the unity of the church. There was a longing for such unity on both sides.

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