Regensburg and Regensburg II: Trying to Reconcile Irreconcilable Differences on Justification

Originally published in Modern Reformation magazine (Sept/Oct, 1998)


When in 1618 the Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted (1588-1638) declared that the Protestant doctrine of justification is that “article of faith by which the church stands or falls” (articulus stantis et candentis ecclesiae), he was only repeating what all Protestants had learned from Martin Luther and what all true Protestants and evangelicals still believe.1

Thus, from the point of view of historic Protestant orthodoxy, it is remarkable that since the early 1980’s, on more than one occasion, Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached (apparent) agreement on the doctrine of justification. Most notable among these agreements has been the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) 1987 statement, “Salvation and the Church”, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994), the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” approved by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (1997), and most recently, “The Gift of Salvation” or ECT II.2

To many Christians (both broadly evangelical and in the liberal mainline) the time appears to be right to heal what seems to them to be the shame of Christendom: the schism between Wittenberg and Rome. This is not the first time that there has been such a flurry of ecumenism. For a time in the early 1540’s it appeared to several leading Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians that the division might be healed. Ecumenism is well and good, but what about justification? Then, as today, the evangelicals and Roman Catholics had a plan: they called it “double justice” (duplex iustitia).

On April 27, 1541, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V convened the Imperial Reichstag (parliament) and a theological conference at Regensburg (also known as Ratisbon). Threatened to his west by France and to his east by Muslim armies, he needed a unified Empire, and to get that he needed the support of the Lutheran Electors.3 To garner that support, he needed his theologians to find a formula on which they could agree.4

In attendance at Regensburg were some of the greatest and most interesting theologians of the sixteenth century. Among the Protestants were Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Martin Bucer (1491-1551). Watching the match from the sidelines was John Calvin (1509-1564). Representing Pope Paul III (1468-1549) were Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), Johann Gropper (1503-1559), Luther’s nemesis Johann Eck (1486-1543), and Albertus Pighius (c.1490-1542).

The participants quickly agreed on the first four articles regarding original sin and Pelagianism.5 Then, after only five days, on May 3, the theologians reached agreement on Article 5, “On the Justification of Man.”6 This consensus did not, however, drop out of the sky. Two abortive conferences had already been held, one in Hagenau (June 1540) and the other in Worms (January 1541). The Augsburg Confession was the basis for these conferences and the principal reason for their failure. The prevailing Roman doctrine of justification taught that justification was the result of sanctification. There was no way to merge that doctrine with the Augsburgers’ forensic doctrine (i.e., that justification was a legal verdict, not a process). For this reason, prior to Regensburg, Martin Bucer and John Gropper had developed an alternative document known as the Regensburg Book. It was this book which, having been read and revised by Cardinal Contarini, formed the basis for the discussions at Regensburg.

The Medieval-Roman Doctrine of Justification

The dominant medieval doctrine of justification taught that sinners are righteous before God only when and because they are transformed internally and morally. The justice of God was said to be distributed to sinners, through the church, in the process of justification. In short, according to Rome one can only be said to be justified because one is sanctified. Further, cooperation with infused grace was of the essence of the received medieval and Roman doctrine of justification.

There were two assumptions about the nature of grace which were essential to this view. First among them was the belief that sanctifying/saving grace (gratia) is a sort of medicinal substance with which the sinner must be infused and which must remain in and actively transforming him. The second assumption was that God had endowed the Church with this medicine and the power to dispense it to God’s people. The sacerdotal system arose to mediate salvation to the Church. Behind the sacerdotal system was, however, another assumption: God’s justice is such that justification is achieved by the result of the gradual accumulation of justice so that eventually one would be completely, intrinsically just and therefore able to stand before God. The three Christian virtues, faith, hope and love, were considered to be divinely wrought or infused powers, by which the sinner might be gradually transformed to saint. Thus, faith is and sanctification is justification, and they are received initially in baptism. Such beginning faith was called “unformed faith” (fides informis), i.e., unrealized by a disposition (habitus) toward obedience. Faith was said to be strengthened in the sacrament of confirmation to an assent to the authoritative teaching of the Church (credulitas), but still “unformed” or unfinished. Following the grace of confirmation, the sinner was said to be in a position to exercise a “faith formed by love” (fides formata caritata), i.e., to begin to take the steps of cooperation with grace toward eventual justification. Thus, in the Roman system faith is obedience and devotion to Christ and his Church. Because it was said to be progressive, justification could not ordinarily be attained finally in this life. The final verdict was a matter of uncertain future expectation (spes).

The new Catholic Catechism (1992) makes it clear that according to Rome, justification is still sanctification. The verb “to justify” means “to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us” Christ’s righteousness. Justification is conversion or moral renewal. Quoting Trent (6.7) the catechism repeats: “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”7 With justification “faith, love and hope are poured into our hearts.”8 “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom.”9

The Protestant Doctrine of Justification

In the years 1513-19, as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians, and as he was driven to work out his theology in controversy with Eck and his other critics, Martin Luther (1483-1546) fundamentally rejected the medieval scheme of progressive justification. He came to see that the Good News is that Christ is the righteousness of God (iustitia Dei) and that this righteousness is outside of us. Sinners are not justified because they are sanctified, but rather, they are justified because Christ fulfilled all righteousness, and his righteousness has been imputed to us. Luther’s doctrine of justification was judicial (actus forensis). For Luther, justification was a legal matter, a declaration and accounting by God. No longer are we to think that God says we are just only because we really are intrinsically just. Rather, we are just because Christ was and his justice is credited or imputed to us. (It is this doctrine of justification which is enshrined in the Augsburg Confession [1530], Art. 4; Belgic Confession [1561], Articles 22-23; Heidelberg Catechism [1563], Ques. 60; and Westminster Confession of Faith [1647], Chap. 11.)

With this recovery of the forensic doctrine of justification came the correlate doctrine of faith. From 1518, Luther began to speak of faith no longer as an infused virtue, a disposition toward obedience, but rather as a divinely wrought gift, the instrument which looks away from one’s self and lays hold of Christ and his righteousness. For Luther and the Protestants, it is not faith per se, but Christ, the object of faith who justifies and saves. Faith does not look within (to sanctification), but without: to Christ. The corollary to the Protestant definition of faith was a revised definition of grace. It was no longer considered to be a medicinal substance with which we are infused for transformation and eventual justification, but a way of describing God’s unmerited favor (favor Dei) toward sinners.10 It is these truths that we uphold in the slogan: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The Regensburg Compromise

The theologians needed a tertium quid (a third thing) which the two sides could jointly affirm. The doctrine of justification on which Bucer and Gropper agreed was a version of “twofold justice” (duplex iustitia).11 In his Enchiridion (1538) Gropper had taught that one is justified by an infusion of divine justice (iustitia inhaerens) which would lead to the addition of further justice through sanctification (iustitia acquisita). He was prepared to accept, however, Melanchthon’s definition of imputation as an addition to his own doctrine of justification.12

For his part, Bucer had already been teaching a rather different doctrine of duplex iustitia in which sinners are said to be justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (iustificatio impii).13 Having been declared righteous, the justified man will necessarily manifest this righteousness by obedience. For Bucer, “God never imputes righteousness without also imparting it.”14 Bucer called this secondary justification the “justification of the pious” (iustificatio pii). Nevertheless, he was explicit throughout his teaching that sanctification was no part of the ground of our justification, but the result of it. Therefore, his two types of justification were not synonymous but correlates. Bucer’s doctrine of duplex iustitia was part of the development of Reformed theology from the earliest Protestant expressions of justification and the later Reformed forms. His doctrine of “double justice” was, in fact, virtually what Luther taught in 1518-19, and merely an early transitional form in the development of the Reformed doctrine of justification.15 What he actually meant to teach is that Christ’s benefits are twofold: justification and sanctification. The latter follows and manifests the former.16

But what to do with the doctrine of sanctification? The medieval church had taught justification through sanctification for a millennium. Luther himself had taught a vigorous doctrine of sanctification (see Luther’s exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Larger Catechism), but neither he nor Melanchthon had found a stable place in their theology for their doctrine of sanctification. Still the questions remained, what do the Protestants believe about sanctification? Where does it belong in their theology? There was more to be said about sanctification than simply that it does not justify.

Thus, Reformed theology set about restructuring Protestant theology to preserve the crucial Law-Gospel dichotomy in justification and to account for the biblical teaching about Christian living. This is why, e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) was written in three parts: Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. The first two parts of the catechism correspond to the classic Protestant Law-Gospel dichotomy. The third section of the catechism builds its doctrine of the Christian life on that essential Protestant foundation.

Thus there was a sharp difference between Gropper’s doctrine of justification and Bucer’s, as sharp as the dichotomy between Law and Gospel. Bucer, like all Protestants, began with imputation whereas Gropper was using imputation as window dressing, as a concession to the Protestants while retaining the old scheme of justification by sanctification.

In his Epistle on Justification (1541), written days after the colloquy, Cardinal Contarini proposed an approach to synthesize Gropper’s and Bucer’s view. He defined the verb “to be justified” (iustificari) to mean “to be made just and therefore also to be considered just.”17 Thus, for Contarini, there are two grounds of justification: imputation and sanctification. Nevertheless, the Protestants were ready for the sort of compromise offered by Contarini. Melanchthon, like Bucer and Calvin, considered Contarini’s and Gropper’s agreement regarding imputation to be a concession which they were entitled to interpret in a way which did not fundamentally threaten the Augsburg Confession’s (Article 4) teaching that sinners are justified by the imputation of Christ’s extrinsic righteousness.

Article 5 of the Regensburg Book was headed: De Iustifcatione Hominis (On the Justification of Man). From the outset it was clear that what the Roman delegates wanted was a clear statement that those who are reconciled to God must be transformed. No one can claim to be reconciled to God and remain a slave to sin.18 “By the Holy Spirit the human mind is moved toward God through Christ and this movement is through faith.”19 Such language was ambiguous enough to facilitate a formal agreement. Contarini and Gropper could say the sanctifying work of the Spirit leads to justification, and the Protestants could say freedom from the bondage of sin is the natural result of justification. The definition of faith even continued by declaring that faith includes assent to all that God has handed down to us and believing the divine promises “most certainly and without doubt.”20 Out of God’s promises one obtains confidence “for the sake of the promise of God” by which “the forgiveness of sins is offered freely.”21 The Protestants had some reason to consider this last expression a concession, since the Roman delegates seemed to be allowing that one could have certainty and assurance of justification in this life. Such an admission would allow for justification as a once-for-all event rather than a process. Yet, these “Gospel” words were qualified by the following: those who might have this fiducia are those who have “repented of their former life and by this faith are lifted up to God by the Holy Spirit, and therefore they receive the Holy Spirit, the remission of sins, the imputation of justice, and innumerable other gifts.”22 Who has sufficiently repented to merit adoption, the imputation of righteousness and the other “benefits of Christ”? Who then can have confidence before God? This ought to have troubled the Protestant negotiators. Yet Article 5 also said that “sinners” are justified through a “living faith” (per fidem vivam).23 If sinners are justified, the Protestant view must be presupposed, since in the Roman view, God never justifies any but the righteous. Yes, but what is a “living faith”? “That faith is living therefore, which apprehends mercy in Christ, and believes that justice which is in Christ is imputed to him and at the same time receives the promise of the Holy Spirit and love. Therefore justifying faith is that faith which is efficacious through love.”24

Brilliantly and deliberately ambiguous, this definition would satisfy everyone at Regensburg–and no one else. First of all, it was “living faith” under discussion rather than “true faith” or “faith alone” (sola fide). Yet, no Protestant could deny that he believed that any saving faith must be a living faith, but the Romanists could say that any faith which is living is a working faith and therefore sanctification is included in justification! Yet here faith “believes” (credit) that Christ’s justice has been imputed to one. This is clearly Protestant. In reaction to this very language, the Council of Trent (which would later condemn all Protestants) makes it clear that according to Rome, one is not merely reputed, but is actually, intrinsically just.25

The twofold nature of the Regensburg doctrine of justification, however, becomes even clearer in the next line. A living faith might be the sole instrument of justification (because it apprehends Christ’s righteousness) but it also receives sanctification and therefore, though the conferees avoided the traditional medieval language “faith formed by love” (fides formata caritate), “efficacious through love” was close enough to Rome’s basic position. Is faith efficacious because it apprehends Christ or because it transforms? Regensburg wanted it both ways.

Thus it seems obvious that the document contained just enough concessions to both sides to make it truly, as Luther said, a “gluing together” of irreconcilable views.26 It was apparent as soon as the colloquy broke up that there was no real agreement on justification after all. Contarini and Gropper interpreted Article 5 in a way which would ultimately be consistent with Trent. Bucer and Melanchthon put a Protestant spin on the article. Bucer wrote to Charles V to say that if the Romanists persisted in interpreting Article 5 to mean that we are justified because we are sanctified, then he wanted no part of it.27 Though it was sufficiently vague to suit the Emperor’s purposes, it was not unclear to Luther or Rome. Both rejected it categorically. Both knew that double justification was an unstable formula because it attempted to combine two mutually exclusive doctrines of God and his justice, grace and faith.

From a confessional Protestant point of view, the Regensburg version of “double justice” must be judged a failure. The Gospel is simply not that difficult. Christ died for and justified sinners. Having been declared just once for all, we are renewed by God’s Spirit through the Word and Sacraments.28 Like justification, our sanctification is also the gift of God, but it is no part of the ground of our righteousness before God.

Conclusion: Regensburg II

The “double justice” scheme of Regensburg has not gone away quietly. It has become the model for ARCIC (1987) and ECT II (1997).29 In the latter, as with Regensburg Article 5, there are twin grounds of justification, Christ’s imputed righteousness and the infusion of sanctifying grace. As with Regensburg, faith is both the instrument of justification and faith is obedience. Contrary to the claim of ECT II, this is not what the reformers meant by sola fide.

Thus with ECT II, we have come full circle to Regensburg and Cardinal Contarini’s doctrine of double justice. It was one thing, however, for Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin to treat Regensburg as a victory over Rome in the 1540’s. It is quite something else for evangelicals to try that trick again 450 years later. With Luther we too ought vigorously to reject this version of double justice. Protestants cannot subscribe a statement on justification which makes even divinely, graciously worked sanctification any part of the ground of our justification. Sanctification is and must be the fruit of justification. Here we must stand, we can do no other.


1 A. E. McGrath has refuted the claim (repeated recently by R. J. Neuhaus) that this was an eighteenth century Lutheran expression belonging to V. E. Loescher (1673-1749). In fact Luther said virtually the same thing. See A. E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 2 vol. (Oxford, 1986), 2.193, n.3; R. J. Neuhaus, “The Catholic Difference,” in C. Colson and R. J. Neuhaus, ed., Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward A Common Mission (Dallas, 1995), 226, n.22.

2 See H. G. Anderson et al, Justification By Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII (Minneapolis, 1985); K. Lehmann and W. Pannenberg, The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? trans. M. Kohl (Minneapolis, 1989); C. Colson and R. J. Neuhaus, ed., Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

3. See P. Matheson, Cardinal Contarini at Regensburg (Oxford, 1972).

4 The need for theology to serve a social-cultural agenda was not just a sixteenth century phenomenon. It is evident from Chuck Colson’s essay in Evangelicals and Catholics Together that social-cultural concerns are more important than theological questions such as justification.

5 Melanchthon and Eck had already worked out an agreement on original sin at Worms, in January 1541. There was a formal consensus among the magisterial medieval theologians on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. The question was not whether we are sinners (that is a distinctly modern question) but rather the question was on the effects of sin. The dominant medieval doctrine of salvation was not Pelagian, strictly speaking (i.e., denying that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all”), but semi-Pelagian. It affirmed original sin, but like many movements afterward, denied the consequences of original sin, i.e., total inability to cooperate with grace.

6 De iustificatione hominis. See C. G. Bretschneider, ed. Corpus Reformatorum. 101 vol. (Halle, 1834-1959) 4.198-201. Hereafter abbreviated CR. A portion of Article 5 is also published in B. J. Kidd, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford, 1911), 343-4.

7 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3.3.2. 1987, 1989.

8 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3.3.2. 1991.

9 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3.3.2. 1993. This section also quotes Trent 6.7.

10 See L. C. Green, “Faith, Righteousness and Justification: New Light on their Development Under Luther and Melanchthon,” Sixteenth Century Journal 4 (1973): 65-86.

11 There is debate among scholars as to whether Gropper actually taught double justification. Cf. E. Yarnold, “Duplex iustitia: The Sixteenth Century and the Twentieth”, in G. R. Evans ed., Christian Authority: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick (Oxford, 1988); A. E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 2.57.

12 Gropper’s doctrine of duplex iustitia developed from c.1538 to 1544 to include imputation and infusion of justice. See Yarnold, 208-9.

13 Romans 4:5 says, in part, in the Vulgate: “iustificat impium.”

14 W. P. Stephens, The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Martin Bucer (Cambridge, 1970), 49. See also idem, 53.

15 See M. Luther, De duplici iusitia (“Two Kinds of Righteousness”) in Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann et al, 55 vol. (St. Louis/Philadelphia, 1955-75), 31.297-306.

16 Stephens, 55.

17 G. Contarini, Epistola de iustificatione, in G. Contareni Cardinalis Opera (Paris, 1571), 588. Cited in Yarnold, 211.

18 CR, 4.198.

19 CR, 4.199.

20 CR, 4.199.

21 CR, 4.199.

22 CR, 4.199.

23 CR, 4.199. The doctrine of faith as the instrument of justification was essential to Protestantism. Trent would later reject this language altogether to teach that baptism is the instrument of justification. See Canones et decreta concilii Tridentini (Leipzig, 1860), 28.

24 CR, 4.199-200.

25 6.7; “et non modo reputamur, sed vere iusti” (Canones et decreta concilii Tridentini), 28.

26 McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 2.61.

27 Ironically, J. I. Packer’s essay in Evangelicals and Catholics Together is a similar attempt to interpret ECT I in a Protestant way.

28 See Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 21, 60, 65, 86.

29 See, Yarnold, Duplex iustitia, 222-23. In a recent audio-taped discussion of ECT held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, John Woodbridge, one of the signers of “The Gift of Salvation,” appealed to Regensburg as a precedent. See also M. A. Noll, “The History of An Encounter: Roman Catholics and Evangelicals,” in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, 85, 101.