Grace Demands an Empty Hand

Posted: May 8, 2014 in Justification, Theology
Tags: , , , , , ,


image by OUCHcharley through a CC license

We are always tempted to come to Christ according to our own merit (Justification), or to better ourselves through our own merit (Sanctification).

Because of our present abhorrence of biblical terms, we need to clearly define Justification. I define Justification as the legal action through which God declares a person as just or righteous.

But with God, we have to come empty-handed, or Grace will not be Grace. That’s the difference between the Reformers’ definition of justification (Sola Gratia and Sola Fide), and the Roman Catholic definition of Justification, which involves a complicated formula that consists of:

“Actual Grace, Faith, Good Works, Baptism, Participation in the Sacraments, Penance, Indulgences, and Keeping the Commandments.”[1]

I won’t get into the subtleties of Roman Catholicism other than to say that the Roman Catholic formula for Justification looks thusly:

Justification = Faith + Works

This is simplistic, but it does give credit to Roman Catholicism for the belief in Justification by Faith as a necessary element in Justification.

The Reformers made the distinction of “Faith Alone”. Their formula would look like this:

Faith = Justification + Works

For Roman Catholics, faith is a necessary component of Justification, but not a sufficient component. Just as oxygen is a necessary component of fire, but not sufficient on its own (fire requires oxygen and a fuel source), so faith is not sufficient on its own, but requires works (Baptism, Penance, etc.).

This is illustrated in the Council of Trent, Session 6:

“CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

CANON XIII.-If any one saith, that it is necessary for every one, for the obtaining the remission of sins, that he believe for certain, and without any wavering arising from his own infirmity and disposition, that his sins are forgiven him; let him be anathema.

CANON XIV.-If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.”[2]

Until the Roman Catholic Church rescinds these anathemas, there can be no true reconciliation between themselves and Protestants. It doesn’t matter how many conciliatory documents are signed by well-meaning Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, the Council of Trent is binding.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification can be summarized as follows:

“The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification may be summarized by the following points: 1. Baptism is the instrumental cause of justification.
2. Justification is by infused grace.
3. Believers must cooperate with and assent to grace to the extent that righteousness becomes inherent within them.
4. Faith is necessary for justification but not sufficient for it.
5. A person is justified until or unless he or she commits a mortal sin.
6. The second plank of justification is the sacrament of penance by which works of satisfaction must be done to gain congruous merit.
7. Believers who die without being pure must go to purgatory for cleansing before they enter heaven. 8. A person is justified by faith plus works.
9. A person is justified by grace plus merit.
10. Justification is effected scare mentally.
11. Sola Fide is rejected and anathematized as a false Gospel.”[3]

For the Reformers, Justification was forensic. That means that a person has been declared righteous. It doesn’t mean you are just in yourself, or that you are made to be just. It means that righteousness is imputed to you. You have been declared righteous by Divine Edict.

The Reformed doctrine of Double Imputation illustrates this point.

“In the atonement, God lays upon Jesus our sins. Jesus is the Lamb without blemish who receives our blemishes by imputation. He is our substitute, so that God pours out the wrath of his judgment on Christ who vicariously accepts the imputation of our guilt and sin. On the cross Jesus was simul justus et peccator in the opposite way from us in our justification. On the cross Jesus was just in himself and sinner by imputation. When Scripture speaks of Jesus becoming sin for us, it does not mean that he became in himself a sinner. If that were the case, he would not have been worthy to save himself, let alone us.”[4]

Imputation works one way for Christ, with our sins being imputed to Christ. It works for the sinner exactly opposite. Christ’s Righteousness is imputed or laid on us. It isn’t ours any more than our sins were Christ’s. That’s why Martin Luther called Christ’s Righteousness “Alien”, and “extra nos” (outside of us).

All of this begins for us when God gives us faith, and we believe God’s Word of Law and Gospel, and come to Him with empty hands. We have nothing He wants, we have nothing to offer that is untainted by sin, not even our very selves. This coming through Faith Alone, or Sola Fide, was so important that Martin Luther said it was “the article with and by which the church stands.”

Do not think that the difference between the Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrines of Justification is a minor point. The Reformers risked life and limb to bring the church universal back to the belief in Christ Alone, by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, according to Scripture Alone, for God’s Glory Alone.

Grace requires an empty hand. We have to let go of the idea that we can bring anything of worth to Him to merit salvation. Nothing means nothing…period.

I end this with the second and third stanzas of Rock of Ages, and a long quote by Charles Spurgeon.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

“God’s grace is powerful, and it brings full salvation to the soul of the person who despairs of anything other than free, unmerited grace. Grace cannot clasp the hand that carries within it ideas of merit, or good works, or any other kind of human addition to grace. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6). God’s wondrous grace cannot be mixed with human merit. The hand that holds onto its own alleged goodness, or attempts to sneak in a merit here, a good work there, will not find the open hand of God’s grace. Only the empty hand fits into the powerful hand of grace. Only the person who finds in Christ his all-in-all will, in so finding, be made right with God. This is why the Scriptures say it is by faith so that it might be in accordance with grace: in God’s wisdom, he excludes man’s boasting by making salvation all of grace.”

-Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace, as quoted by Dr. James White


1. Slick, Matt. “Attaining Salvation in Roman Catholicism.” Salvation in Roman Catholicism., n.d. Web. 5 May 2014.

2. “~The Council of Trent – Session 6~.” ~The Council of Trent – Session 6~. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2014.

3. Sproul, R. C.. Justified by Faith Alone. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010. Print. Pg. 31, Kindle file.

4. Ibid, pg. 37, Kindle file.

simul iustus et peccator,

Eric Adams

  1. Michael Snow says:

    We see how powerful grace was in Spurgeon’s life. Let us compare our lives.

  2. Nick says:

    Hello Eric,

    You said something I consider most crucial when talking about Justification: “Because of our present abhorrence of biblical terms, we need to clearly define Justification. I define Justification as the legal action through which God declares a person as just or righteous.”

    I agree that we need to stick with Biblical terms and such terms need to be clearly defined. However, I don’t think you’ve defined Justification accurately enough for a case to be made. When examining how the term “justify” is used in Scripture, it seems to me that the term refers to something between vindication and acquittal. It does not refer to declaring someone righteous in the ‘positive’ sense. In other words, justification consists essentially in the forgiveness of sins (acquittal), with the Cross being sufficient to effect reconciliation between God and man. No extra or outside ‘righteousness’ is necessary to add onto what forgiveness brings about.

    If you look at all the major texts on getting saved/justified, you will see that forgiveness of sins is the focus. One of the most famous text being Romans 4:6-8, where Paul says that David describes for us ‘reckoning righteousness’ in terms of having sins forgiven. This is why Paul says we are “justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9), and why every time the Apostles preached the Gospel they brought up the issue of having sins forgiven and nothing more. Plus, when the Prophets foretold the conditions of the New Covenant, they mention only two components: forgiveness of sins and receiving the Holy Spirit and a new heart (please see Jer 31:33-34 & Eze 36:25-27).

    • Eric Adams says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my post. I am trying to understand exactly what you are saying is the problem with my definition. Forgive me for being a little slow here. I just want to be on the same page before I respond.

      • Nick says:

        Hello Eric,

        As I sometimes see “justify” defined, people say it’s to be thought of as “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned. But there are others who define it as “just-as-if-I’d” kept all the commandments. Those are not the same thing. In a typical human courtroom, a judge never says “I declare that you’ve kept all the commandments,” but quite often a judge says “I declare that you’re not-guilty of the charges.”

        As I see the Biblical facts, to justify refers to forgiving sins, which suggests there’s no reason to add more to this Declaration by saying Christ’s Righteousness is Imputed to us.

      • Eric Adams says:

        Thank you for your clarification, Nick.

        So then, when the Reformers spoke of the Imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer through His active and passive Righteousness, that you disagree that justification means more than just pardon?

        Do you believe that only Christ’s suffering applies to the believer’s Justification, or do you believe that His obedience and fulfillment of the Law is also imputed to the believer, in a judicial sense?

      • Nick says:

        Hello Eric,

        In my study of the Reformers (specifically Luther and Calvin), they did not believe in Imputing Christ’s Righteousness in the sense of us being seen as keeping all the commandments. The only sense I’ve seen the Reformers (specifically Luther and Calvin) speak of Imputing Christ’s Righteousness is in the sense of pardon/forgiveness only. They appealed to many Biblical texts that only spoke of forgiveness and Christ’s suffering, and when Calvin speaks of Christ’s obedience, he speaks of it only in terms of that which brings us forgiveness/pardon.

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