Justification: A Doctrine In Crisis -- By: Carl F. H. Henry

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 38:1 (Mar 1995)
Article: Justification: A Doctrine In Crisis
Author: Carl F. H. Henry


Justification: A Doctrine In Crisis

Carl F. H. Henry*

The modern ecumenical effort to reconcile long-standing Protestant-Catholic doctrinal differences has not met with spectacular success. Although important differences have been identified, no great progress has been made in surmounting them. Most Roman Catholics view their received dogma as essentially without error, whereas Protestant critics insist that Rome promotes views that Scripture disallows. The Orthodox Church has not been aggressively engaged in dialogue, despite its affiliation with the World Council of Churches.

Few theological issues have divided the communions more centrally than that of justification by faith. Specially noteworthy in this connection are the two ecumenically-oriented reports entitled Justification by Faith: U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue (1983) and Salvation and the Church: An Agreed Statement by the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Many less formal conversations have occurred.

Some professedly evangelical denominations refuse to attach to the rubric of justification the decisive significance on which the Protestant Reformers and the evangelical mainstream insist. They focus instead on the centrality of sanctification, or on some post-conversion charismatic experience, or on the decisive importance of Jesus Christ. But justification nonetheless remains a forefront concern, one that has gained new intensity through the controversial 1994 declaration entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

Justification is God’s declaration and implementation of his eternal will giving sovereign assurance in a divine verdict that we otherwise doomed sinners are by faith now acquitted. To quote the Heidelberg Catechism: “Without any merit of my own and of His mere mercy [God] gives me the perfect satisfaction and holiness of Christ, and accounts that I have never committed or had any sin, but have myself fulfilled the obedience which Christ has achieved for me, if only I receive this benefit with a believing heart.”1

In his epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians the apostle Paul stresses the impossibility that sinful man can become just before a holy God by legalistic piety or law-keeping or human works. But God’s merciful verdict declares man justified in God’s sight on the ground of the substitutionary

* Carl Henry is visiting professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2065 Half Day Road, Deerfield, IL 60015.

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