Imputation of Justice and Merit

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The early reformers, founders of Protestantism, identified concupiscence in fallen man with original sin. Knowing as they did that the corruption of nature remains even in the justified, they refused to admit that in justification the believer undergoes any real ontological change such as takes place, according to Catholic doctrine, in the infusion of sanctifying grace and the theological vir tues. For that reason justice, or righteousness, is not intrinsic in the full sense of the word but rather extrinsic. The sinner, they said, is justified when God imputes to him the justice of Christ. Though his sins are forgiven when by faith he takes to himself the merits of Christ, still they are not really blotted out or extirpated from the soul but remain in it covered over by the merits of the Savior as long as this mortal life endures. It is thus that the justified man is at the same time just and sinful, simul justus et peccator.

Martin Luther at the height of his career commented on Gal 3.6: "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as justice." He wrote:

Christian righteousness is to be defined properly and accurately, namely, that it is a trust in the Son of God or a trust of the heart in God through Christ two things make Christian righteousness perfect. The first is faith in the heart, which is a divinely granted gift and which formally believes in Christ; the second is that God reckons this imperfect faith as perfect righteousness for the sake of Christ His Son . On account of faith in Christ God does not see the sin that still remains in me. For so long as I go on living in the flesh, there is certainly sin in me. But meanwhile Christ protects me under the shadow of His wings and spreads over me the wide heaven of the forgiveness of sins, under which I live in safety. This prevents God from seeing the sins that still cling to my flesh. My flesh distrusts God, is angry with Him, does not rejoice in Him, etc. But God overlooks these sins, and in His sight they are as though they were not sins. This is accompanied by imputation on account of the faith by which I begin to take hold of Christ; and on His account God reckons imperfect righteousness as perfect righteousness and sin as not sin even though it really is sin. [Luther's Works, ed. J. Pelikan, v.26 (St. Louis 1963) 231232.]

But it should not be thought that Luther conceived of no internal change in the justification of the sinner. In the same commentary he writes:

We become doers of the law and are accounted guilty of no transgression. How? First, through the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness on account of faith in Christ; secondly, through the gift and the Holy Spirit, who creates a new life and new impulses in us, so that we keep the Law also in a formal sense. Whatever is not kept is forgiven for the sake of Christ. Besides, whatever sin is left is not imputed to us. [Op. cit. 260.]

The great reformer, therefore, thought that the justified man received "new life" from the Spirit, but he never admitted an ontological sanctification and interior renovation in the sense of the Council of Trent.

John Calvin also taught the total depravity of fallen man, and justification by faith alone.

The just man, excluded from the righteousness of works, apprehends by faith the justice of Christ, invested in which he appears in the sight of God not as a sinner but as a just man. Thus we simply explain justification to be an acceptance by which God receives us into His favor and esteems us as just persons; and we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of the justice of Christ. [Inst. relig. chr. 3.11.2.]

Luther was always adverse to the idea of personal merit on the part of man, not only before but also after justification. His disciple Philipp Melanchthon, however, admitted "spiritual and corporal rewards in this life and the next for the good works of those who were reconciled and pleased by their faith." By this, however, he did not mean to imply that the good works of the righteous really merit glory, for he added, "Our virtues are not the price of eternal life; this is surely given for the sake of the Mediator" (Loci theologici 9, De bonis operibus; Corpus reformatorium 21:778, 780).

The concept of imputation of merits comes out more clearly in Calvin.

It is the teaching of Scripture that our good works are constantly bespattered with much uncleanness by which God is rightly offended and is angry with us but because through His leniency He does not weigh them with all strictness, therefore He accepts them as though they were very pure. Hence, though these works are not worthy of it, He remunerates them with infinite benefits both of this life and the future life. [Op. cit. 3.15.4.]

In modern times Protestant theologians have tended to abandon the idea of imputation and to postulate a real internal renovation of the justified man. However, they do not generally concede the ontological change that is an essential part of Catholic doctrine.

See Also: justification; calvinism; cologne, school of; extrinsicism; justice, double; justice of men; lutheranism; philippism; synergism.

Bibliography: Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, Tables générales 2:279093. h. volk, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:641642. l. bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, tr. a. v. littledale (Westminster, Md. 1956). h. kÜng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, tr. t. collins et al. (New York 1964). j. lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland, 2 v. (Freiburg 1940; 4th ed. 1962). j. h. newman, Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (London 1838; New York 1900). Histoire de l'église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, v.16.

[t. j. motherway]