Infusion vs. Imputation: Two views of justification

By John Pacheco

Although Catholics affirm many of the central Christian doctrines that Evangelicals affirm (i.e. the divinity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the existence of hell, etc.), Catholics also affirm certain early Christian doctrines that Evangelicals adamantly reject (i.e. the perpetual virginity of Mary, the doctrine on the communion of saints, existence of purgatory, etc.). The doctrine on justification is one such example. For the Reformers in the sixteenth century and Evangelical Protestantism in the twentieth century, man's righteousness is not inherent or intrinsic to his being since it was forever lost in the fall of Adam and Eve. The justification offered by Christ, says the Reformed tradition, is a legal declaration. It is an attribution or 'imputation' only.

This righteousness does not indwell in us; instead, it is a righteousness or justification that exists outside or apart from us [institia extra nos]. The remarkable aspect of this 'justification by imputation' doctrine is that it is not predicated on a comprehensive biblical defence. In fact, this doctrine is based on a relatively few number of biblical passages which have been grossly misinterpreted. They are understood out of context (Cf. Romans 3:10) and, as a consequence, contradict other scripture (Cf. Matthew 25:46). The Reformed notion of justification is, therefore, a legal declaration only since we cannot actually be holy ourselves.

Both Catholic and Reformed believe that a legal declaration by God is made. However, the Catholic does not hold to the belief as a legal declaration only. For the Catholic, the righteousness of Christ is not only imputed to the believer but is infused as well. When the faithful person co-operates with this infused righteousness, he then possesses an inherent righteousness, which subsequently becomes the grounds of justification. For Catholics, man's righteousness becomes inherent rather than simply imputed or 'credited' to his account. The righteousness which man receives from God is located within man, existing as part of his being and intrinsic to his person.

While a comprehensive discussion on this question is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be useful to examine two difficulties with the Reformed view of justification. The Reformed way of making sense of Jesus' commandment to be 'perfect' (Cf. Matthew 5:48), Saint Peter's exhortation to be 'holy' (Cf. 1 Peter 1:15), or the plethora of other Scriptural references commanding us to be holy, clean, and pure (Cf. Leviticus 11:44, 2 Chronicles 23:6, Isaiah 6:3, Matthew 5:48, Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 2:5, Revelation 21:27, Revelation 22:11), is to conceive of these passages in the declaration sense. Evangelical Protestants claim that people cannot be holy but can claim Jesus' holiness and, in that sense, 'be' holy. Yet, the Scriptures cited above, as well many others, do not say that at all. Jesus was not saying 'I will credit righteousness to your account'. He said, "you are to be perfect. " (Matthew 5:48). Likewise, Saint Peter does not say, 'You can be holy by imputation of Jesus' holiness'. He says, "Be holy yourselves. " (1 Peter 1:15).

The only biblical way of initially making the person holy is the way that Jesus established it - in being 'born of the water and the Spirit' (Cf. John 3:5), and the way that the prophets had foretold long before - through baptism: "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." (Ezekiel 36:24-27). It is inconceivable to understand these passages in the Reformed tradition without entering into absurd speculation about what 'to be' really means. [Incidentally, this is the same problem that Protestants run into when Jesus says 'This is my body' at the last supper.]

Another point of contention arises when the whole concept of declaration is considered. Is it possible, for instance, for God to 'declare' something and it not actually 'be'? This is a theological impossibility. When a human being declares something, it is not necessarily true or complete, but if God declares something, it comes into being and it is. To suggest that God can declare something and it not 'be' would contradict God's perfect nature. In Genesis, God said "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3), and there was light. The Pharisees were called hypocrites by Our Lord because they were hypocrites. Satan was called the 'Father of Lies' because he is the 'Father of Lies' - not simply 'considered to be' the 'Father of Lies'. Hence, when God cleans us and makes us righteous, He really does make us righteous and holy. It is not a mere legal declaration or 'accounting entry'. In essence, therefore, Evangelicals believe in a kind of 'legal fiction' which is captured by Luther's rather absurd belief that we are 'at the same time just and sinner', meaning, we are just by imputation even while sin remains in us. The obvious difficulty with this teaching is that, at any particular time, a person is either righteous or he is not, just as he is either saved or damned. He cannot be both at the same time.

Before the Fall:Why We Need Baptism
Water in the Old Testament: A sign of God's presence
Baptism in the New Testament: Baptism now saves you!
Answering the Evangelicals: A biblical response to objections
Infant Baptism: A family affair
A Visual Image and Some Closing Thoughts
Apologetics of Baptism

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