Bavinck on Justification

On what basis does God justify the sinner?  Rome and others say that God justifies a person insofar as he is sanctified; in other words, God justifies someone because the person has some grace-infused obedience inside himself.  Rome and others (like the NPP) thus say that the Reformation position – that God justifies the ungodly by faith alone only on the grounds of an external righteousness (Christ’s) – is a legal fiction.    They call this historic Protestant position legal fiction because God justifies someone who is not actually good inside.  Bavinck turns this argument on its head: actually, the position of Rome (et. al.) is the one that distorts the justice of God in justification.  Here he is:

Besides the fact that Holy Scriptures very plainly speak of justification as a legal or forensic act, this further fact must be pointed out to the opponents of the doctrine of justification: they have a mistaken notion of what justification is.  They say that such an acquittal of man on the basis of a righteousness outside of himself is unworthy of man and that leaves him quite unchanged.  But this charge comes back upon the heads of those who make it, for if they justify a person on the basis of a righteousness which is in him, they must themselves certainly admit that this righteousness in man here on earth is very frail and imperfect, and must therefore conclude that God justifies a person on the basis of a very inadequate righteousness and thus makes himself guilty of a false judgment.  On the other hand, an acquittal based on the righteousness which is in Christ is a perfectly just one for it was presented perfectly by God himself in the Son of his love.

This is penetrating.  If God does justify a person insofar as he is sanctified, this justification is unjust, because a person’s sanctification is imperfect and mixed with sin, and God would be accounting someone righteous who is imperfectly righteous.  The historic Protestant position says that God justifies the ungodly based on the perfect obedience (righteousness) of Jesus Christ, which is credited to their account by a God-given faith alone.   Bavinck goes on to explain.

Justification and sanctification are not the same, and ought to be sharply differentiated from each other.  For whoever neglects or erases this distinction again sets up a self-righteousness in man, does injustice to the completeness and adequacy of the righteousness of God which has been manifested in Christ, changes the gospel into a new law, robs the soul of man of its only comfort, and makes salvation dependent upon human merits.  In justification, faith has only the role of a receiving agency, like that of the hand which accepts something; by it the soul places its dependency solely in Christ and his righteousness.  …[Faith] justifies not by its own intrinsic moral worth but by its content, namely, the righteousness of Christ.

This entire section on the topic of justification in Our Reasonable Faith is worth a thousand dollars (p 439-468).  If you read one ST this year, please, make it this one!  This book is a Reformation antidote to Rome, NPP, and FV and a catalyst for confessional piety.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

6 thoughts on “Bavinck on Justification”

  1. Bavinck’s point is summarized nicely in the Belgic Confession (Article 22):

    “For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or,
    if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith
    has his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God— for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified ‘by faith alone’ or by faith ‘apart from works.'”


  2. Quote: “and must therefore conclude that God justifies a person on the basis of a very inadequate righteousness”

    IF I am reading this right, I’d say you made a serious misunderstanding of the Catholic position. The inner righteousness Catholics talk about is the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit…IF THAT doesn’t cut it for an adequate righteousness then I don’t know what does.

    See my article on Eph 2:8 for more info:


  3. Thank, Nick.

    I think the question is this: will God accept a “decent” righteousness and let it fly as good enough? Is the Spirit-enabled goodness inside a person absolutely flawless in every way, free from original sin and actual sin? If not, then that “inside” righteousness can’t justify a person, because God doesn’t accept something pretty close or pretty good.

    That’s why historic Protestants say that our justification is based on a righteousness outside (extra nos/alien) of us, that didn’t well up from our hearts, but was credited to our account when God gave us faith. This righteousness is perfect, because it is Christ’s, not something in me.

    Of course, this credited “outside” righteousness results in the “inside” work as well. Those justified will be sanctified. However, our standing before God depends on the “outside” righteousness which is perfect, not the “inside” which is still stained with sin. We take seriously the working of the Spirit making us new/holy, but that newness/holiness is a result of our justification, not part of the basis/grounds of it.

    Thanks again for your comments. I’ll check out your article later.



  4. I think you misunderstood.
    This isn’t “Spirit enabled righteousness,” the Indwelling Spirit IS the righteousness. It is the ‘formal cause’ of justification, as Trent says.
    That’s why Adoption is based on the Indwelling as well, there is no half-adoption, its all or nothing.


  5. Thanks, Nick.

    Even if we sharply disagree, I’m glad you see a substantive difference between the historic Protestant doctrine of justification and that of Rome. I skimmed your paper on that link, so I say that with this in mind.

    Another question though: I’m not sure where we find Paul speaking of the Spirit as our righteousness. He calls Christ our righteousness (1 Cor 1.30, Phil 1.11), a righteousness from God apart from works and received by faith alone (Gal 3.11, Phil 3.9).

    Again, thanks for the clarity.



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