Imputed Justification and Free Will

In an imputed justification model, it would seem as if free will is obliterated the moment after the event of imputation occurs. In other words, imputation seems to imply that any works performed after imputation would be a residual or effect of Christ’s righteousness with an individuals sinfulness. Since the righteousness is Christ’s and not the individual’s righteousness, then anything I do thereafter is not of my will but only Christ’s will.

How can the idea of Imputed Justification be reconciled with free will after the event of imputation occurs?

It cannot.

It is like saying once you are in you can never leave.

Free Will though is hotly debated in protestant sects because of issues like this.


We are simultaneously sinners and righteous. Our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s. Through sanctification, we are conformed to his image. We have to cooperate with God in this by being willing to conform and not resist his grace.

Justification is an instantaneous act made possible by prevenient grace. All we are left to do is respond either positively or negatively, through free will, to God’s grace. Sanctification is a process where we are transformed into Christ’s image; cooperation between God and man in this is necessary.

Everything we do, even after coming to faith in Christ, is not Christ working through us. If that were true, then God would be the author of sin.

In sum, we have freedom to choose to let Christ work through us, or we can choose to sin thereby insulting the Spirit of grace.

Putting aside what I believe is an over-emphasis on a singular event (my justification started with my baptism, since it is then that faith starts for an infant), it seems quite the opposite. I have no free will to choose or actively seek God on my own without the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s movement in my heart, making faith possible in me, also gives me the option, or free will, to reject grace.


JonNC, do Lutherans believe in total depravity? I know alot of Protestants do.

When you factor total depravity into the equation, you can only have free will when one encounters the power of the Holy Spirit through the proclaimed Word, which frees the individual to choose to embrace grace or sin.

Essentially the case. As I stated above, we have no free will to pursue or actively seek faith in God, without the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts.

From the Augsburg Confession:

Article XVIII: Of Free Will.

1] Of Free Will they teach that man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness, and to work 2] things subject to reason. But it has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness; since the natural man 3] receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 2:14; but this righteousness is wrought in the heart when the Holy Ghost is received 4] through the Word. These things are said in as many words by Augustine in his Hypognosticon, Book III: We grant that all men have a free will, free, inasmuch as it has the judgment of reason; not that it is thereby capable, without God, either to begin, or, at least, to complete aught in things pertaining to God, but only in works of this life, whether good 5] or evil. “Good” I call those works which spring from the good in nature, such as, willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to marry a wife, to raise cattle, to learn diverse useful arts, or whatsoever good 6]pertains to this life. For all of these things are not without dependence on the providence of God; yea, of Him and through Him they are and have their being. “Evil” 7] I call such works as willing to worship an idol, to commit murder, etc. 8] They condemn the Pelagians and others, who teach that without the Holy Ghost, by the power of nature alone, we are able to love God above all things; also to do the commandments of God as touching “the substance of the act.” For, although nature is able in a manner to do the outward work, 9] (for it is able to keep the hands from theft and murder,) yet it cannot produce the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, etc.

BTW, Article XVIII was approved by the Roman Confutation.


First of all, we don’t believe in Imputed Justification. We believe in Imputed Righteousness and Forensic Justification.

The former means that Christ’s righteousness is imputed, or counted, in our favor before God and the latter means that because of that imputed righteousness we can stand forensically, or legally, justified before God.

They are, to put it bluntly, accounting terms. It is exactly as if someone who has literally all the money in the world takes some of that money and puts it in our account to pay off our debts for us.

Now, even though I didn’t have any say in that matter, it didn’t violate my free will in the least. I accrued all of that debt on the basis of my own free choices, and my wealthy benefactor freely chose to take care of those debts for me. I can go right on ahead and keep racking up more and more debt, if I want to and that wealthy benefactor can go right on ahead and keep covering those debts, if he wants to. It’s my life and I can live it however I like and, conversely, it’s his money and he can spend it however he likes. Nobody’s free will is being abnegated at all.

Now, under what terms and conditions, precisely, Christ, as our wealthy benefactor, will freely chose to cover any given individual’s debts and whether or not He will continue to cover that person’s debts as that person incurs new ones are different topics entirely.

This sounds similar to the Catholic position of Infused Righteousness or am I missing something?

Thank you for the correction (on Imputed Righteousness).

I was trying to frame my question in the in relation to after the justification event or moment-in-time, so that would be my real concern here.

While on the topic- Since the moment-in-time decision in which God declares the sinner righteousness did not preclude a free will decision on our part(we didn’t have a say in the debt being paid off), it would seem as if God forcing his will(bank deposit) on us. I can think of situations in life in which people feel as if getting help is an offense to their character. Some, in the end, do the need help and are being stubborn to accept it, while others do not need the help and choose to turn it because it would be more helpful for them to develop themselves.

Sadly I lack the heavy gun lingo for this, but I think much of the argument is actually over poor lingo comprehension anyways.

Evnagelicals have often attempted to convince me that we as humans simply cannot have any degree of righteousness and that any that we seem to have is Christ within us. This is true in a sense, but not that in which I think they are trying to tell me!

Man was created in God’s image and likeness. Before the fall, we had intact character and virtue and needed no forgiveness. But even then all righteousness came from Christ since all Creation came about through Him.

The problem I have with much evangelical thought on the matter is that the emphasis is SO heavily on the Grace and free gift aspect that little thought is given to the thorny issue of an eternal heaven filled with humans in communion with God. Such a concept is nonsense if one holds to the “sinner covered by Grace” model of justification. God, I promise, is not deluding Himself into seeing you as righteous for eternity. Rather, Christ offers us the Grace to be not only saved, but sanctified. The EO use the term “divinized” which doesn’t mean made into gods, but remade perfectly in harmony with the nature of God. That’s good description, I think.

It’s no mere accounting trick or legal loophole. God’s offering us the Grace to be genuinely remade so that we no longer sin, no longer WANT to sin and have no guilt or shame for what lies in our past. Sounds like heaven to me!

It’s not. The remission of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness is independent of inward cleansing and growth in righteousness, but the latter (sanctification) always follows the former (justification).

But you are assuming that Protestants only believe in justification and leave no place for sanctification. That’s not true.

Protestants do believe in sanctification or “divinization.” In fact, Protestants like John Wesley and the early Methodists were distinguished by their focus on sanctification.

The difference, I think, between Catholics and Protestants on this issue is first the Protestant belief in total depravity or the idea that fallen man is helpless to help himself and must first encounter prevenient grace before he can even turn toward God (as you pointed out). The second difference is the sharp distinction and separation that Protestants give to justification and sanctification. It’s not that we don’t believe in sanctification, its just that we don’t confuse sanctification with justification.

I’ll handle a couple of responses at once here…

First, yes I can easily see how someone might be offended that a wealthy benefactor swoops in and pays of their debt for them, but that feeling of offense doesn’t nullify the free will of either party, at least in my mind it doesn’t. One of the things we (and I mean we here, including me) often miss in these sorts of discussions is that Free Will cuts both ways. If we can freely chose to do something, then God also has that same free choice to do as He wills. Indeed, I would argue that God’s omniscience and omnipotence makes Him the only being that can truly do whatever He wants.

When arguing against “Name It and Claim It” theology, we so often say that God is not a vending machine. He is never under any external compulsion to do or not to do anything. That also applies to Justification. If God wants to see someone as justified before Him, then He can do that under whatsoever terms He likes. That may sound like I’m arguing for Calvinism, but I’m not. That works under Arminianism and under Catholic/Orthodox theologies as well. What we’re in disagreement about isn’t whether or not God can forgive sin but under what circumstances and by what means He will forgive.

Second, as has been pointed out, another thing that often gets left out of these discussions is the Protestant view (well… views…) on Sanctification. I think this happens for two reasons:

1 - Protestants separate Justification from Sanctification. The later may (or may not be) a necessary consequence of the former, but those two things are, nevertheless, two completely separate concerns for Protestants. Catholics and Orthodox see it completely the other way round: Justification and Sanctification are fully integrated into a single whole to the extent that it’s impossible to talk about either one without talking about the other. If Catholics/Orthodox are guilty of not understanding that Protestants make a hard distinction on these points, then we Protestants are at least as guilty as not understanding that they make a hard non-distinction between them. That non-distinction is as important to their understanding of salvation as our distinction is to ours and I think we just don’t get that sometimes.

2 - Culturally, Protestants have done a, frankly, awful job of living out that distinction, Evangelicals and Mainliners alike. We have, in my opinion, lived though a generation’s worth of the plagues of “easy believism,” “cheap grace,” and “seeker sensitivity” that has left us bereft of any real sense of Sanctification, at least in our public pronouncements. Sure, privately, the vast majority of Evangelical churches will talk about Sanctification and the idea that, if you really claim to name the name of Christ, then your walk had better match your talk; but publicly? No. A great many Pastors will never talk about those things from the pulpit because “we don’t want to scare anyone off.” That’s changing, little by little, but there’s still an awful lot of Pastors and Christians who, in an effort to not be seen as “one of those Christians” make the Gospel into nothing more than “Just say the Sinner’s Prayer and that’s all you have to worry about.”

Just my two cents…

Grace is meant to lead to even more grace, as we cooperate with it. We’re not intended to simply stand still IOW, provided the opportunity is given us. Read Luke 12:48 as well as the Parable of the Talents, considering what happens to the lazy servant who doesn’t “invest”.

What this means is that justification is a process; we’re forgiven and cleansed initially, completely gratuitously, at baptism, but that doesn’t mean we’ll remain in our sanctified position any more than Adam had to stay in his. We’re tested and refined-and we can resist/reject grace at any step along the way. Only the just Judge knows who’s written in the Book of Life-and we won’t know with absolute certainty until the end.

And that’s really a major issue in itself. Discussing them as if they were different things suggests a separation that cannot be. Neither makes sense without the other, which makes discussing them separately akin to pouring mud into the water.

I suppose the analogy I would use is that they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have the one side without the other and when you are looking at the one, you are only looking at one part of a greater whole. Nevertheless, there are two distinct sides to this particular coin and it’s helpful to remember which one you’re looking at.

Every Evangelical or Protestant theology that I’ve read concludes that Sanctification is a necessary consequence of Justification (well… Regeneration, but let’s not go there). We don’t always live that way, as I mentioned earlier, but at the intellectual level at least, we as a whole understand that someone who is genuinely Justified will always become, at least in part, Sanctified.

I suppose that the furthest I would be willing to go would be to say that our difference are in emphasis. You emphasize the unity between Justification and Sanctification and we emphasize the distinction.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that Protestant theology, especially of the Reformed camp, seems to emphasize and to work forward from the Fall while Catholic theology seems to emphasize and work backwards from the Final Judgement.

I like what you said. No complaints or problems. Grace is salvation AND sanctifying.

I don’t like the analogy because coins CAN be experienced one side at a time. I’m not convinced that justification and sanctification can be divided even for the sake of discussion. Perhaps a better analogy (though perhaps on the verge of irreverent) is the way that Coke is both sugar water and carbonation. Separately, the sweet and the bubbles make no sense (or aesthetic appeal) and why try? It’s intended to be received in combination. Trying to pull them apart only leads to error and confusion about God and His will for us. He’s neither sticky sweet or bitterly bubbly, but PERFECT!

I get it that at root protestants are reacting against perceived abuses in the 16th century church which made it seem like heaven could be bought or earned. But the proposed cure is at least as bad as the disease. The idea that salvation (call it justification if you like) is separate from sanctification is every bit as deadly as the poor fools who sold indulgences. (Incidentally, it’s not incorrect in principal to note that sacrificing one’s financial wellbeing for a greater cause is a potential moment of Grace. It just has little to do with the amount given and everything to do with the motivation process.)

I think you’re mixing imputed justification with OSAS, which isn’t strictly necessary. While it’s the initial belief that justifies a person and anything after that is only the effect, it’s still involving the individual’s cooperation for them to accept that imputed righteousness.

At least that’s what they say.

Geez, wouldn’t it be a lot easier if everyone listened to Tradition and we didn’t have to deal with questions like these? Then we’d all peacefully be increasing our justification by the grace of God through the Sacraments with no one in Christendom to tell us we’re wrong. :cool::cool::cool:

Indeed it is, that’s why Protestants don’t separate Sanctification from Salvation in our theologies.

In every Protestant theology that I am aware of, Sanctification and Justification together, along with Regeneration and the Resurrection are all considered necessary components of Salvation.

The problem is that, over time, preachers began to use the germ “getting saved” to refer only to Regeneration and Justification, mostly because “you need to get saved” sounds a heck of lot better than “you need to get regenerated and justified.” We did this for so long and did such a terrible job of theologically educating the ordinary folk in the pews that we started to use the terms “saved” and “justified” interchangeably in normal conversation and preaching even though, behind the scenes, at our seminaries if not always our sunday schools, we were careful to draw the distinction.

Of course, these days, on both sides of the Tiber, the state of basic theological education (or catechesis, if you prefer) is so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t find more than half a dozen lay people in any given church that could even begin to tell you what Salvation beyond some hazily defined mishmash of bits and pieces of all four of the components I mentioned earlier. You guys are doing a much better job than we are but it’s still pretty bad, at least for the “rank and file” cradle Catholics that I know.

PS - And yes, OSAS is a completely separate discussion from the “anatomy” of Salvation. We cover it in the same class, but on a different day. The distinctions between Calvinism and Arminianism come in when talking about the timing and the causes of Regeneration and Justification.

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