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The Centrality of Justification by an Imputed Righteousness, by Robert Brinsmead*

16 September, 2009

An excerpt from a provocative article available here.

‘The doctrine of justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness is not simply one doctrine among others. As Luther constantly declared, it is the basic and chief article of faith with which the church stands or falls and on which its entire doctrine depends….

It can be seen [for example in the Smalcald Articles] that Luther did not think that the doctrine of imputed righteousness was only something to be preached to mere Christian beginners or that it could be forgotten as a mastered accomplishment. He not only stressed that this truth cannot be learned too well but that it must occupy the central position in the teaching and thinking of the church.

If we were to judge Protestantism by whether or not the doctrine of imputed righteousness is at the center of its thrust, we would have to conclude that Protestantism scarcely exists today. Not by any stretch of the imagination is Christ’s imputed righteousness central in present-day thinking or witness. Some will make cursory mention of it, and even most who do mention it relegate it to something which is required at the time of Christian initiation. Apparently it is thought that more mature Christians can get past it and go on to higher things.

This present state of affairs in the Protestant movement explains the growing accord between Rome and the neo-evangelicals. No Roman Catholic dogma has ever changed; but with the Reformation doctrine of imputed righteousness removed from the center of the neo-evangelical witness, Rome sees more reason for affinity than for alarm.

It is not hard to demonstrate that Protestant revivalism, following in the tradition of Charles Finney, thinks very poorly of the great Reformation doctrine of justification. The inner experience of being saved or sanctified is overwhelmingly the center of almost all revivalism. It has become a kind of Protestant gratia infusa. Neither can anyone challenge the observation that Pentecostalism, neo-Pentecostalism and Campus Crusade are entirely devoted to a focus on internal experience. It is the old Roman Catholic theology ofgratia infusa wrapped up in some evangelical trimmings. For Rome it is a happy eventuality. Catholics are even being instructed to learn the evangelical patter so that they can move in with this stream of religious fervor.

Let us now leave these very obvious deviations from sound Protestantism to examine what we may well expect to be the last fort of the Reformation heritage-the good, conservative or middle-of-the-road evangelical Protestantism. This is where the shoe is going to pinch. Most of us who are interested enough to publish or read this type of material would like to think that we of all people are the sound evangelicals who recognize the difference between medieval and Reformation theology. But let us also submit to the acid test: Is the doctrine of imputed righteousness really at the center of our faith and witness? It is not easy to be self-critical, but it is time that we let that great truth which calls all doctrines into question, call the content of our own message into question….

Centering on the New Life

In their book on Protestant Christianity, John Dillenberger and Claude Welch pinpoint the vital difference between the Reformers (who did believe in the new life of the Spirit) and the sounder Anabaptists (who did believe justification by faith). “For the Anabaptists . . . the new life in Christ through the Spirit rather than justification by faith is the center.”–p.63.

And on this same point, evangelical Protestantism today reflects the Anabaptist rather than the Reformation focus. Says Paul Tillich in A History of Christian Thought: “For the kind of Protestantism which has developed in America is not so much an expression of the Reformation, but has more to do with the so-called Evangelical Radicals.”-p. 225. “Luther’s conflict with the evangelical radicals is especially important for American Protestants because the prevailing type of Christianity in America was not produced by the Reformation directly, but by the indirect effect of the Reformation through the movement of evangelical radicalism.”–p. 239.

Most evangelical witness tends to lack a central theology of justification. Its overwhelming focus is on the internal experience of being born again and saved. There is much truth in it. The need for the new birth ought to be taught. But when it is not seen in the setting of the pre-eminence of justification by an imputed righteousness, there is grave danger that people come to think that salvation is based on an internal change within their own hearts. Then the focus is inward instead of outward, on Christian experience instead of Christ’s experience, on a subjective happening instead of a historical reality.

In the popular evangelical message, people are urged to get saved by inviting Christ to come into their hearts. Being saved is then identified with having that internal experience of being born again by the presence of the indwelling Christ.

Aside from the fact that this comes perilously close to the Roman Catholic principle of salvation by the indwelling presence (as ably set forth by Cardinal John Henry Newman), it is a far cry from the apostolic message of salvation. The apostles did not begin by proclaiming that their hearers could be saved by having Christ come into their hearts to produce an internal experience. Their focus was not an internal happening but an external happening. Christ lived, died and rose again for the sinner’s justification. The apostles proclaimed an objective, historical reality. Here was Paul’s kerygma:

We declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that He hath raised up Jesus again. Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Acts 13:32, 33, 38, 39.

Salvation was said to be in something which God had already done outside the sinner in the person of Jesus Christ. As men listened, the Holy Spirit was present to give them faith. Now the hearers were exhorted to accept this salvation by faith. “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Rom. 10:9.

Faith does not bring the person of Christ down out of heaven to come into the believer’s heart, for “the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above)” (Rom. 10:6). Rather, faith lifts the believer up to heaven and places him “in Christ.” Then and then alone is the scripture fulfilled, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” 2 Cor. 5:17.

Rather than the new birth being the result of focusing on the inner change itself, the very opposite is true. We see this illustrated in Jesus’ lesson to Nicodemus. After telling the proud ruler about his need of a new birth, Jesus did not lead the convicted sinner to dwell on his internal experience. He directed Nicodemus’ eyes to that great external event which guaranteed his salvation. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:14,15….’

*Creed:or:Chaos doesn’t claim to endorse anything Brinsmead has said other than that quoted here.

  1. 17 September, 2009 12:26 am

    I respectfully disagree with the premise of this article that “The doctrine of justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness is not simply one doctrine among others. As Luther constantly declared, it is the basic and chief article of faith” Although it certainly true that we are justified by faith and receive Christ’s imputed righteousness, and it is a neglected and very important doctrine, it is not the most basic and most chief act of faith.

    Predestination a/k/a TULIP a/k/a the Five Points of Calvinism, is the most basic and most chief article of faith. Yet, the article criticizes the “Centering on Predestination” in the section titled by this phrase. See section 3.

    Here is a quote from that section: “A by-product of centering on predestination has been the reduction of Calvinism into the popular “once-saved-always-saved” theology. In its cruder simplicity, it means that the man who once accepts Christ will never forfeit eternal life even though he goes out and commits the most outrageous sins. This is a far cry from the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Calvin meant that the elect would persevere in a life of consistent piety, and if a man flagrantly failed to perservere, it just proved he was not one of the elect.”

    This is a very wrong summary of predestination and a very wrong belittling of predestination. The scope of Predestination a/k/a TULIP a/k/a the Five Points of Calvinism swallows up the doctrine of justification of Christ’s imputed righteousness. TULIP goes from the total depravity of man through unconditional election through limited atonement through perseverance of the saints (a/k/a as preservation of the saints). For the author to mention only perseverance of the saints is to address only one fifth of predestination.

    The doctrine of justification of Christ’s imputed righteousness, as glorious as it is, by itself does not address the most basic need of man (total depravity) and the only basis for salvation (unconditional election). Moreover, it does not address limited atonement and irresistible grace (the means of how we get faith). It only addresses the benefits of that faith: imputed righteousness.

    What is so wrong about wrongly summarizing and belittling predestination to just perseverance of the saints identified as a “life of consistent piety”, is it twists one hundred and eight degrees the doctrine of God’s grace alone to a doctrine centered on man’s performance. An Arminian could believe in the doctrine of justification of Christ’s imputed righteousness, because this doctrine is silent as to how we get faith. The Arminian would argue that we get faith through man’s free will. The Arminian could boast about his role in salvation in supplying the faith.

    In conclusion, TULIP is the most God-centered in the most logical golden chain of salvation basic and chief statement of faith that there could be. “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” 1 Corinthians 1:30-31. Thank you.

    • 17 September, 2009 1:10 pm


      Brimsmeade’s point about once-saved-always-saved is not that it’s an accurate or adequate summary of the doctrine of predestination — he says it’s not. His point is that this is what it gets *reduced to* in much contemporary evangelicalism.

      Brimsmeade’s concern is that there’s a very strong stream of the Reformed community that might better be called ‘predestinarian evangelicalism’, which tends to find the center of Reformational belief and practice in divine sovereignty, TULIP, and so on, without realizing that at the very same time the focus is almost continually placed on *our internal transformative experience of these realities*. Our recognition of and rest in God’s gracious predestination is not a resting in our being predestined, but a resting in and receiving the Christ in whom we’ve been predestined from before the foundation of the world.

      Further, Brimsmeade isn’t saying anything about the centrality of justification that Calvin, his colleagues and successors didn’t all agree with, and I think it’s a hard sell to argue that our response to Arminian errors one hundred years after the start of the Reformation is the ‘most basic and most chief article of faith’.

      At any rate, the truth and power of TULIP is rooted in the reality of justification, and the main point of TULIP is to protect the gospel of free justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone. ‘Total depravity’ drives us out of ourselves to Christ for righteousness and life; ‘unconditional election’ expresses the utter freedom of God’s electing mercy and grace despite our deserving the opposite; ‘limited atonement’ testifies that Christ has accomplished precisely the full and free redemption of his elect that he has purposed to perform; ‘irresistible grace’ proves that our salvation is in God and God alone, and denies to us that even our resting in and receiving of Christ is our own good work contributing to our salvation; ‘perseverance of the saints’ assures us that the one to whom we look for all our righteousness and life by faith is a complete and all-sufficient savior, forever.


  2. 17 September, 2009 1:05 pm

    You do know that Brimsmeade later ‘jumped ship’ -don’t you?

    • 17 September, 2009 1:15 pm


      I didn’t. The only thing I’m presenting or endorsing from Brimsmeade is what I’ve given in the excerpt, and I don’t (and can’t) vouch for anything else.


  3. 17 September, 2009 2:33 pm

    Sadly, he now refers to himself as a ‘Christian atheist’ as odd as that may sound.

  4. David R. permalink
    17 September, 2009 6:16 pm

    Here’s some info:

  5. 17 September, 2009 8:30 pm

    Wow — he really seems like someone Calvin might refer to as a ‘théologastre’! Caveat lector…. I put a disclaimer in the post. To read what he’s written recently in light of what he wrote then — again, wow. I can’t help but think of Hebrews 6.

    Thanks for watching our backs, guys.


  6. 18 September, 2009 3:06 am

    Wow! That is a leap from faith. Scary.
    Thanks GLW

    Hey Brannan, tell Kate that teething thing works…for about 5 seconds at a time…

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