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John Henry Newman on Justification

Note: John Henry Newman's work on the topic is called the Lectures on Justification (which can be bought for quite a steal of 6 dollars on the link above), a helpful secondary source on the relationship between Newman's work and the Reformational understanding on justification is Christ Castaldo's Justified in Christ: The Doctrines of Peter Martyr Vermigli and John Henry Newman and Their Ecumenical Implications


It is said that Justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, that is, the article on which the church stands or falls. This was one of the areas where the Reformational heat of polemical warfare focused on. In popular circles today it is said that "Roman Catholics believe in faith+works, while protestants believe in faith alone." In Newman's Lectures on Justification, we see that this is a vast oversimplification on the points of division. Through Newman, we see that the differences are fewer than each side would like to admit. This is seen in the fact that Newman's third edition of the work which was reprinted in 1874 (the original lectures in 1838) shows very little editing from his original edition, although he had been a Roman Catholic for almost three decades. This article seeks to give a basic outline of the main focuses of Newman's doctrine of justification, and then I will contrast Newman's doctrine and the Reformational understanding of justification.

On a further note, it is important to realize that Newman does not only harp on the evangelicals (particularly Luther) in these lectures, but he also chastizes those of the "extreme Roman school" as he phrases it. He writes,

"This school is elsewhere called in these Lectures ultra-Roman or extreme Romanist. Such Catholic divines as Caietan, Vasquez, and Bellarmine were intended by this title, who, by making justification consist in the habit of charity or again in good works, not in sanctifying grace as an initial and distinct gift from above, seemed to the writer to fix the mind, equally with Anglican Arminians, not on a Divine inward Presence vouchsafed to it, but on something of its own, as a ground to rest upon and take satisfaction in."

It is interesting to see that Newman identifies Bucer, Melanchthon, Calvin, Hooker, and Baxter's view of justification as "quite close to [his] own."

Duplex Iustitia

One of the first questions which comes to the mind of a Protestant on analyzing a doctrine of justification is "do they believe in forensic justification?" That is, "Are the merits of Christ imputed to the believer?" The Answer for Newman is a hearty "yes." In organic unity with this imputation of Christ's righteousness (iustitia alienum) is also an infusion of that same righteousness (impertita iustitia) as one continuous act. For Newman the term "inherent righteousness" is the common term for this idea, yet not the best term, he writes,

"If the Presence of Christ is our true righteousness, first conveyed into us by Baptism, then more sacredly and mysteriously in the Eucharist, we have really no inherent righteousness at all. What seems to be inherent, may be more properly called adherent, depending as it does, wholly and absolutely upon the Divine indwelling, not ours to keep, but as heat in a sickly person, sustained by a cause distinct from himself."

A common theme for Newman and a "both/and" approach to the Roman Catholic/Reformed debates rather than an "either/or" approach. Although, it must be said that a confession of the infusion of grace into the believer in salvation, one which is beyond a mere imputation, is not alien to the Reformed tradition, and her best theologians confess this doctrine against the idea of a "legal fiction."

Newman illustrates this idea with two analogies, the "voice of the Lord" and the sacraments. First, Newman imagines the relationship as in the "voice of the Lord" which is a popular theme within the Psalms. He argues that the voice of the Lord was not a mere speaking of fact or a mere request, but it is truly "mighty in operation." He argues that the voice of the Lord brings into existence what it speaks, it is an effectual voice. The voice of the Lord is an accounting of and declaring of righteousness that occurs at the moment of one's justification through the sole internal instrumentality of faith. This voice is not an empty word that is spoken over us, but a powerful, mighty, and effectual word, wherein we become (participate in) what we are accounted in a moment and over the process of time.

The second analogy is that our justification is "sacramental." There is both the external element and the internal grace. A sacrament is, as the catechism writes, "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us" and, and the 39 articles say,

"not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm."

The external sign is that of the declaration of our righteousness. This declaration is effectual and works an inward grace in us. The inward grace is that of our true righteousness.

Castaldo gives a third helpful analogy,

"Air, it turns out, is an excellent analogy for Newman’s concept of divine presence—something extra nos that reaches one’s interior and from there provides life."

Justification and Sactification

Another question on the mind of any Protestant is "Does Newman conflate Justification and Sanctification?" A certain orderly and formal order of salvation (ordo salutis) is central to how a Protestant views Salvation. A common critique of the doctrine of Justification in the Latin and Greek churches is that it conflates justification and sanctification. Newman's answer to this question is complicated. Castaldo's comments are helpful on this point,

"Even though Newman combines justification and sanctification, he nonetheless recognizes an epistemological sequence when he states that “in logical order, or exactness of idea, Almighty God justifies before He sanctifies.” This follows the traditional Protestant ordo salutis. A couple of sentences later, Newman specifies the causal relationship of these activities: “to ‘justify’ means in itself ‘counting righteous,’ but includes under its meaning ‘making righteous;’ in other words, the sense of the term is ‘counting righteous,’ and the nature of the thing denoted by it is making righteous.” This explanation allowed Newman to claim subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles while also following St. Augustine and the eastern fathers in their emphasis upon the internal work of the Spirit."

Theosis and Justification

Another central theme within his view of justification is that of the "Divine presence." For Newman, our participation in the Divine life is our justification. He writes,

“He justifies us by entering into us, He continues to justify us by remaining in us...This is really and truly our justification, not faith, not holiness, not (much less) a mere imputation; but through God’s mercy, the very Presence of Christ."

He sharpely rebukes those of the "extreme Roman school" on this point. Our justification is not an inherent habitus, rather it is the presence of the Triune God within us through the incarnation. He comes and dwells within us which causes us to be saved from sin and death. This, though, does not eliminate the need for imputation, as Newman writes,

"Justification is the “glorious Voice of the Lord” declaring us to be righteous. That it is a declaration not a making, is sufficiently clear from this one argument that it is the justification of a sinner, of one who has been a sinner; and the past cannot be reversed except by accounting it reversed."

The Sacraments and Faith

For Newman, the sacraments and faith make up the instruments of justification. Newman as an Anglican needed to assert (as the Articles and Homilies confess) that “we are justified by Faith only,” and that “Faith is the one mean and instrument of justification.” Newman interpreted these as meaning that faith is "the sole internal instrument, not the sole instrument of any kind.”

For Newman Baptism was a second instrument of our Justification along with faith. The distinction is that faith is that internal instrument wherein the Divine indwelling is received (passive), and Baptism is the external instrument wherein the Divine indwelling is imparted. The giver is God, the hand of the giver is Baptism, the gift is the Divine indwelling, the hand of the receiver is faith, and we are the receiver.

Newman writes,

"There would be nothing inconsistent, then, in Faith being the sole instrument of justification, and yet Baptism also the sole instrument, and that at the same time, because in distinct senses; an inward instrument in no way interfering with an outward instrument. Baptism might be the hand of the giver, and Faith the hand of the receiver. However, this is not the exact relation of Faith to baptism, as is plain for this reason—that Baptism occurs but once, whereas justification is a state, and Faith “abides.” Justification, then, needs a perpetual instrument, such as faith can be, and Baptism cannot. Each, then, has its own office in the work of justification; Baptism at the time when it is administered, and faith ever after."

The Formal Cause of Justification

The term "formal cause" is an unfamiliar one outside of catholicly minded theological circles (which includes Reformed Catholics). It comes from Aristotle's account of the four causes, material, formal, efficient, and final. The causes are explained thus,

"All the four (kinds of) causes may enter in the explanation of something. Consider the production of an artifact like a bronze statue. The bronze enters in the explanation of the production of the statue as the material cause. Note that the bronze is not only the material out of which the statue is made; it is also the subject of change, that is, the thing that undergoes the change and results in a statue. The bronze is melted and poured in order to acquire a new shape, the shape of the statue. This shape enters in the explanation of the production of the statue as the formal cause. However, an adequate explanation of the production of a statue requires also a reference to the efficient cause or the principle that produces the statue."

The formal cause is that form which the thing made is to take. In Newman's thought, this is one of the few developments which occur from his Protestant days to his Roman Catholic days. In the earliest edition, he distinguished between a "proper" and "improper" formal cause. The one proper, formal cause of Justification, for Newman, was the imputation of righteousness. The improper cause is the inherent righteousness given to us.

Later, he develops on this idea, developing on, yet retaining his former comments. The focus of the formal cause becomes that of "uncreated grace," i.e. the Divine indwelling. Newman writes,

Though, then, there be but one formal cause (and there never can be more than one proper form of anything), still it is not settled precisely what that form is. We are at liberty to hold that it is not the renewed state of the soul, but the Divine gift which renews it.

He sets himself in contrast to many of the Roman Catholic theologians of his day and dedicates an appendix to this topic, which shows that "when this [the question of the formal cause] is properly examined, it will be found that there is little or no difference of view between the disputants [Roman Catholics and Protestants]."


As we have seen, Newman provides a robust and faithful account of justification which does justice both to the forensic and actual aspects present in scripture and the Fathers while avoiding the extremes of certain members of the Roman Catholic and Protestants. Still, there are a handful of areas in which Newman departs from strict, Reformational orthodoxy (which is not necessarily a bad thing). First, the formal cause. The formal cause was strictly defined by the Reformed as being the forensic imputation of Christ's righteousness, for Newman it is the Divine presence of God (at least in his final edition of the lectures). Second, perseverance. Whereas in the Reformed understanding, the one who is justified will persevere in faith, hope, and love, in Newman's understanding,

"There is no such person under the Gospel as a “justified sinner,” to use a phrase which is sometimes to be heard. If he is justified and accepted, he has ceased to be a sinner. The Gospel only knows of justified saints; if a saint sins [mortally], he ceases to be justified, and becomes a condemned sinner. Some persons, I repeat, speak as if men might go on sinning ever so grossly, yet without falling from grace, without the necessity of taking direct and formal means to get back again. They can get back, praised be God, but still they have to get back, and the error I am speaking of is forgetfulness that they have fallen, and have to return."

Lastly, merit. In the Reformed understanding of justification, merit plays absolutely no role whatsoever in our justification, although we may say that (non-meritorious) works play a certain role in the larger scheme of salvation (justification taken in the broader sense), merit plays no role. For Newman, on the other hand, in the words of Castaldo, teaches that

"Christians possess two-fold is natural for him to maintain that the former consists of Christ’s merits while the latter involves merit that belongs to the Christian. This approach allows him to say that “the inherent righteousness of a true Christian, viewed as distinct from Christ’s inward presence, is something real.” Part and parcel of this real righteousness is the Christian’s real works which accrue real merit before God. Such meritorious works can increase as one’s apprehension of justification itself increases (by a greater manifestation of the Spirit)."

Newman justifies (no pun intended) this doctrine thus,

"Catholics hold that our good works, as proceeding from the grace of the Holy Ghost, cannot be worthless, but have a real and proper value; on the other hand, that the great reward of eternal life is due to them only in consequence of the promise of God. Good works have on this ground a claim on God’s faithfulness to His promises, and there a claim on His justice, for it would be unjust to promise and not fulfill."

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