Daily Justification?

In anticipation of part two of “When Was Abraham Justified?” and particularly the explication of what exactly Genesis 15:6 means if it does not designate the point at which Abraham was converted and justified, I’d like to bring up the related issue of the frequency of forensic justification before God. Most evangelicals today speak of justification as a one-time act that takes place at the moment when saving faith is first exercised. This declaration is unique, unalterable, and unrepeatable.1

I was surprised a year or two ago to find out that Luther and Calvin didn’t see it quite that way, or at least didn’t always express it that way. Rather, they acknowledged the necessity of thinking of justification as an ongoing and continual experience and perhaps a repeated occurrence. This is to be carefully distinguished from a process whereby the justified individual becomes progressively more justified than he was before, increasing in his righteous status. Luther and Calvin both affirm that the believing sinner is just as forensically righteous when he first believes as he ever will be. The real issue is whether justification should be considered a one-time, unrepeatable act whereby God imputes Christ’s righteousness once and for all to the believer’s account or whether it should be connected to faith as often as it is exercised so that the believer may be said to be justified repeatedly.2

While we finds hints of the concept of a repeated or continual justification in Luther and Calvin, it is most clearly set forth in Brakel. The italics in the quoted text below is mine and is added for emphasis.

Here are two selections from Luther:

The adversaries do not want to admit this. Therefore they laugh when we say that faith justifies and yet sin remains. For they do not believe that incredible magnitude of God’s power and mercy beyond all mercy. He who is righteous is willing to concede this, but he who is not righteous wants to consider himself righteous. This imputation is not something of no consequence, but is greater than the whole world and all the holy angels. Reason does not see this, for there is a kind of neglect of the Word of God. But we should give thanks to God, I say, because we have such a Savior who is able to cover us and to count our sin as nothing. For God’s mercy is pardoning and love is meanwhile forgiving, and God really takes sin in such a way that it does not remain sin, because he begins materially to purge and to forgive completely. On no condition is sin a passing phase, but we are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins and by the justification of God’s mercy. Sin remains, then, perpetually in this life, until the hour of the last judgment comes and then at last we shall be made perfectly righteous. For this is not a game or delusion, that we say, “Sins are forgiven by faith and only cling to us, because that newness of life has miraculously begun.” In short, the term “to be justified” means that a man is considered righteous.3

The imputation of God is greater than pure justification. For justification is the greatest, because it does not impute the sin which remains in human nature, as if it did not exist, but rather it shows that righteousness exists on account of Christ. Faith perceives that the love of God conceals sins. The mercy of God thus makes nothing out of all sin, just as he created all things out of nothing. We are urged by reason and knowledge of philosophy to attain to a knowledge of the gospel. Daily we sin, daily we are continually justified, just as a doctor is forced to heal sickness day by day until it is cured.4

Here are two selections from Calvin:

It is certain that David [in Psalm 32] is not speaking of the ungodly but of believers such as he himself was, because he was giving utterance to the feelings of his own mind. Therefore we must have this blessedness not once only, but must hold it fast during our whole lives.5 Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days, but is declared to be perpetual in the Church (2 Cor. 5:18, 19). Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described.6

Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God . . . . It therefore follows, that even to the end of life, we are led towards the eternal kingdom of God by the righteousness of faith. On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone; but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works. But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years, in one uniform course, did not prevent him from fleeing to faith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness; where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram, we certainly gather, that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith, in any such way, that one should perfect what the other has begun; but that holy men are only justified by faith, as long as they live in the world. If any one object, that Abram previously believed God, when he followed Him at His call, and committed himself to His direction and guardianship, the solution is ready; that we are not here told when Abram first began to be justified, or to believe in God; but that in this one place it is declared, or related, how he had been justified through his whole life. For if Moses had spoken thus immediately on Abram’s first vocation, the cavil of which I have spoken would have been more specious; namely, that the righteousness of faith was only initial (so to speak) and not perpetual. But now since after such great progress, he is still said to be justified by faith, it thence easily appears that the saints are justified freely even unto death. I confess, indeed, that after the faithful are born again by the Spirit of God, the method of justifying differs, in some respect, from the former. For God reconciles to himself those who are born only of the flesh, and who are destitute of all good; and since he finds nothing in them except a dreadful mass of evils, he counts them just, by imputation. But those to whom he has imparted the Spirit of holiness and righteousness, he embraces with his gifts. Nevertheless, in order that their good works may please God, it is necessary that these works themselves should be justified by gratuitous imputation; but some evil is always inherent in them. Meanwhile, however, this is a settled point, that men are justified before God by believing not by working; while they obtain grace by faith, because they are unable to deserve a reward by works. . . . The righteousness even of the most perfect characters perpetually consists in faith; since Abram, with all the excellency of his virtues, after his daily and even remarkable service of God, was, nevertheless, justified by faith.7

This concept is most explicit in Brakel:

God justifies man by faith, and thus justification is God’s judicial pronouncement toward man. This sentence is not only pronounced once upon the first act of faith, but is made as frequently and as often as man exercises faith in Christ unto justification. This is not an assurance that they are justified once and for all, but it constitutes an actual and daily act of forgiveness.8

The justification which occurs upon the first act of faith, and which occurs time and again after that, each time includes the forgiveness of sins—sins to be committed subsequently virtualiter, that is, as far as virtue and efficacy are concerned; thus declaring that they would also each time be forgiven actualiter, that is, actually. However, sins cannot be forgiven in actuality prior to being committed.9

Thus the basis for all their abominable and carnal propositions is a misconception and abuse of the doctrine of justification. They therefore answer the question presented above by stating that justification does not occur frequently and daily, but that it has occurred once and for all.

Having said this by way of preface, we shall now proceed to prove the following truth: Justification from eternity, at the time of Christ’s death, or upon the first act of faith, did not take place so as to exclude daily justification in reference to committed sins.10

See esp. Brakel’s extended discussion, “Justification: A Daily Occurrence,” 2:381–9, which I do not quote here because of its length.

If you are aware of others who spoke (or speak) this way about justification, please share in the comments.

Several observations can be made:

  1. One could argue that Calvin and Luther have in mind merely the ongoing experience of being righteous before God, which is always connected to faith alone, rather than justification itself being repeated. But it must be admitted that Luther and Calvin are not so careful as modern-day evangelicals to speak of justification only in terms of conversion. In fact, I think it would not be an entirely accurate reflection of the Reformers’ conception of justification to speak of it as we customarily do.
  2. What may be implicit in Calvin and Luther is unmistakably explicit in Brakel, who makes it clear that it is not the mere experience of justification that is repeated, but the very act itself.
  3. In all three the focus on forgiveness of sins is predominant (i.e., rather than focusing on the corresponding imputation of Christ’s righteousness). The logic is something like this: since forgiveness of sins is an ongoing reality and since justification includes the forgiveness of sins, it is necessary, then, to see justification at least in this sense as being a daily act.

Perhaps this raises more questions than it answers. Good. That was largely my intent. I will try to tie up the loose ends in my part two of “When Was Abraham Justified?”

Update: Dane Ortlund points out this quote from William Fenner:

We must use the assurance of faith in applying the blood of Christ; we must labor to purge and cleanse our consciences with it. If we find that we have sinned, we must run presently [at once] to the blood of Christ to wash away our sin. We must not let the wound fester or exulcerate, but presently get it healed. . . . As we sin daily, so he justifies daily, and we must daily go to him for it. . . . We must every day eye the brazen serpent. Justification is an everrunning fountain, and therefore we cannot look to have all the water at once. . . . O let us sue out every day a daily pardon. . . . Let us not sleep one night without a new pardon. Better sleep in a house full of adders and venomous beasts than sleep in one sin. O then be sure with the day to clear the sins of the day: Then shall our consciences have true peace. ((A Treatise of Conscience, in Works, 1651 ed., 108–9. Quoted in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life Wheaton: Crossway, 1994, 115. I’ve modernized the English spelling.))


  1. Surely justification by works, about which James speaks, and future justification should also be brought into the discussion at this point, but I must resist heading in that direction—at least for now.
  2. At the heart of this question are the meanings of and relationship between justification and imputation, which take shape in these two main issues: (1) whether justification is a declaration of righteousness to be distinguished from imputation or whether imputation is a subset of justification (or perhaps whether they are identical), and (2) whether imputation is best viewed as an accounting term of crediting (which would suggest one-time and unrepeatable) or whether it carries the idea of reckoning or considering (which would lend itself to repeated occurrences.
  3. LW, 34:167.
  4. LW, 34:191.
  5. Editor’s Note: In these days of “crisis evangelism,” and of crisis “decisions for Christ” upon which professing Christians so often rest their lifelong confidence concerning their possession and assurance of eternal life, this point is in great need of being stressed. Calvin most assuredly speaks frequently of conversion and of initial entrance into Christ’s kingdom as a definite act, but he does not (as so many in our day appear to do) stop there! Rather, he stresses that, just as the regenerate man is initially reconciled to God by faith, so he continues throughout his entire lifetime to have imputed to him the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ by faith. This emphasis, then, upon the Christian life as a life of faith (rather than merely one initial step of faith), a life of reconciliation and forgiveness (rather than merely one initial experience of reconciliation), a life of justification (rather than merely one initial act of justification) is very important for a proper understanding of many of Calvin’s terms, concepts, and constructions.
  6. ICR, trans. and ed. Beveridge, III, xiv, 11.
  7. “Genesis 15:6,” Genesis, Calvin’s Commentaries.
  8. The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:358.
  9. Ibid., 2:378.
  10. Ibid., 2:380.

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5 Responses to Daily Justification?

  1. Matt Olliffe December 29, 2008 at 9:33 am #

    Hi Phil
    6 years ago now I looked at A Brakel on daily justification. This was my analysis:

    Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711), a Dutch second reformation divine, observed that Gn 15:6 was not Abraham’s initial justification , and in response clearly articulated that justification is not only pronounced once upon the first act of faith, but is made as frequently as man exercises faith in Christ , even daily . The following is an outline of his position , and an assessment.

    The foundation of à Brakel’s position was that God did not forgive once for all the future sins of believers not yet committed at the beginning of their lives of faith. While à Brakel admitted justification is perfect, and God forgives all sin, he forgives all sin and justifies the person as they are at the present moment. Further, justification includes in its virtualiter that God will forgive subsequent future sins. But à Brakel denied God in a once for all moment forgives all future sins .

    Vital for à Brakel’s position is that he distinguished reconciliation in Christ’s death from justification. Because Christ made a perfect atonement, God is always reconciled with the believer, even when he falls into sin. Justification presupposes reconciliation. But when the believer is in sin he is not suitable for justification, for he does not exercise the faith whereby he is justified. Justification itself is the pronouncement of a sentence of acquittal concerning and toward a person, who by faith receives Christ and his righteousness. It is pronounced in the promises of scripture. For à Brakel justification is not ‘a permanent act’ but a ‘transitory act’. Declarations of identical nature are repeated in time. Justification then is the new pronouncement of acquittal concerning newly committed sins. However, it would seem that a new declaration also embraces all past sins.

    à Brakel demonstrates that justification occurs daily in that: (1) that God justifies daily believers who have fallen into sin (1 Jn 1:9ff); (2) As to the problem of hidden or forgotten sins which are unconfessed, à Brakel first argues that reconciliation is an ongoing reality, that the confessor confesses his sinful nature, not simply his sins, and thus confesses all his sins, and that God forgives all anyway; (3) Believers pray daily for forgiveness and God forgives them (Mt 6:14); (4) Christ’s ongoing intercession as high priest would be unnecessary if believers were justified once and for all upon first exercise of faith; (5) As faith is not once and for all but exercised daily, and justification follows faith, (Ro 5:1, 3:28), then as often as the believer exercises faith is he justified. Abraham is an example, in that he had been justified before Gn 15:6; (6) He who is righteous, let him be righteous still (Rev 22:11). Thus, the righteous man must endeavour to be justified frequently; (7) The once for all view produces absurdities, like (a) God forgives uncommitted sin, (b) one could never pray for forgiveness, (c) one would not grieve over sins not yet committed .

    à Brakel clearly has made similar observations to Calvin and Luther. He notes that Gn 15:6 was not Abraham’s initial justification . At least formally he agreed with Luther’s dictum, that we need to be ‘justified daily’. His attempt to relate justification to the ongoing life of faith is commendable. However, it is instructive to note the areas he moves beyond the reformers, particularly Calvin.

    First, while Calvin speaks of ‘initial’ justification, and justification’s ‘continual progress’, he never speaks of ‘repeated justification’, or ‘daily justification’. Because the sins of believers are venial believers always remain justified. Calvin’s statements thus might admit of a ‘continuous uninterupted process’, but not an iterative or repeated process.

    The reason for this becomes clear in my second point. For à Brakel, the presence of sin in the life of the believer renders him unsuitable for justification.
    ‘When a truly converted and believing person is engaged in the practice of sin, God does not exercise the act of justification toward those who are in such a condition. At that time they are also not suitable objects for this transaction, for they do not exercise faith whereby they are justified’
    Thus is a significant departure from Calvin. No longer is the justification of the ungodly on view (Ro 4:5), for ‘they are not suitable objects of the transaction’. Nor can we say that this justification is ‘free’, for they must make themselves suitable, and strive for justification . à Brakel’s underlying assumption is that faith cannot co-exist with sin. However, Calvin’s view of sin is far more radical, being not merely isolated acts but a burden continually inhering in the believer .

    Thus justifying faith for à Brakel is no longer a seamless robe. The inherent contradiction is seen when his proposition is stated thus: believers no longer exercise faith. Here, he is in fundamental agreement with the Tridentine view of faith. While it is true that whatever does not come from faith is sin (Ro 14:23), it is not true that whatever comes from sinners is not faith.

    Thirdly, we note that à Brakel no longer regards conversion as Calvin did, as a fruit of faith, or in other words, that we are regenerated by faith (Ga 3:1-5) . It seems to be the legal repentance and not the evangelical repentance of which Calvin spoke .

    Fourthly, it is thus not surprising that for à Brakel justification can be present without a sense of assurance. He derives this from his observation that many godly die without a comforting sense .Here à Brakel again departs from Calvin, for whom assurance was of the essence of faith, in that faith implies certainty (Ro 4:21; He 11:1) .

    Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, while à Brakel asserted the continuous reconciliation of the believer, he threatened the person not justified with eternal torment as much as the unreconciled . Here lies a deep inconsistency in his theology that is pastorally disasterous. The root of this error is his inversion of the relationship between justification and reconciliation. Our justification was achieved in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Ro 4:24-5:1; Ro 5:9; 6:7) and our once-and-for all justification in that event grounds our reconciliation with God as its condition precedent (Rom 5:1). Our justification in the past is then complete, but not in us, in our faith’s initial moment, but in Christ, at the cross. However, our continued faith in the present makes that once-and-for all justification continuous with our present experience.

    I propose that the language appropriate to describe the relationship between continuing faith and justification following its initial moment is that of a ‘continuing instrument’. This is not original. R L Dabney reasoned that
    ‘Faith is the instrument for continuing, as it was for originating our justified state. This is clear from Rom xi:20; Heb X:38, as well as from the experience of all believers, who universally apply afresh to Christ for cleaning, when their consciences are oppressed with new sin.
    Buchanan likewise argued that
    ‘although we read of the continuance as well as the commencement, of justification, considered as the privilege of believers, …yet there is no second justification, properly so called, but a decisive and unalterable change in our relation to God, which comences with out union to Christ, and is continued by our remaining in him; an abiding state of Justification, which is the effect of that indissoluble union.’
    Recently R Smith has similarly argued that:
    ‘Faith is thus the initial (past), continuing (present) and final (future) instrument of justification’ .

    Gn 15:6 intimates faith was Abraham’s continual, constant and characteristic response to God. While we might recognise that faith in response to God’s promise is ‘not in instant exercise at every moment’, nevertheless ‘it is an undying principle in the believer’s heart’ (cf Ro 4:19-21) . That is to say, justification does not merely lead to, but in itself is, a continuing ‘status’ or ‘state’, and is uninterrupted. ‘[G]etting in and staying in are covered by the seamless robe of faith’ .

    Justification’s character as uninterrupted is inferred as a clear implication of the ‘golden chain’ (Ro 8:29-30). There are none justified who are not also glorified . Further, a status is the obvious connotation of the grace in which believers stand (Ro 5:1-2, 8:1-4). As justification is of the ungodly, justified believers does not pass again under condemnation when betrayed into sin. Further, verbal aspect regards the perfect passive (: Ro 6:7) as stative. Paul is pointing to justification through participation in Christ’s death as the basis for freedom from sins .

    I have criticised both the positions of à Brakel (justification as an initial repeatable act that does not lead to a continuous state but permits continual repeated acts) and Berkhof/Hoekema (justification as an initial irrepeatable act leading to a continuous uninterrupted status that cannot be interrupted) as inadequate.

    I propose that justification be viewed as consisting in both an initial declarative act and a continuing status co-extending with continuing faith, that allows repeatable declarative acts based on that same continuous faith. This may be called our ‘external’ or ‘extrinsic’ righteousness. Scripture in a different sense also speaks of a justification based on the works that demonstrate that faith. This may be referred to as our ‘internal’ or ‘instrinsic’ righteousness.

    A distinction between the English adjectives ‘continuous’ and ‘continual’ is instructive. While both terms can mean uninterrupted in time and without cessation, ‘continual’ can also denote an act of regular or frequent recurrence or repetition .

    It thus becomes clear that a justification as a continuous status may have a continual aspect.

    Buchanan distinguished ‘actual justification’ (the initial imputation of Christ’s righteousness) and ‘declarative justification’ (the subsequent declarations made on the basis of that initial imputation) . The former is a continuous act, the latter may be a continual or repeated act.

    Developing Buchanan’s distinction, we should say that ‘actual justification’ in Pauline language denotes our faith union with Christ initiated when a person believes the gospel (Eph 1:13; 2:5,13; Col 2:13; 3:3). Indeed, Buchanan recognises as much, when he sees ‘a decisive and unalterable change in our relation to God’ that ‘commences with our union to Christ, and is continued by our remaining in him; an abiding state of Justification, which is the effect of that indissoluble union.’

    Our justification from sin as a status flows from our union with Christ in his death in Christ’s past (Ro 6:7). However, Paul also brings  into relation with our Christian beginnings when he regards the union with Christ as symbolised through baptism as conversion-initiation(Ro 6:4).

    Buchanan avoids stipulating the time of Abraham’s initial justification (whether at Gn 15:6 or Gn 12:1). Buchanan simply states that Abraham was declared just at Gn 22 by his works, and was actually justified beforehand . Sungenis criticises Buchanan on the grounds that Rahab’s justification could not be a declarative justification, as that would ‘leave no room for her actual justification’ . However, there is no reason why a declarative justification could not be made at the beginning of faith (Rahab), as well as during it’s course (Abraham).

    Nevertheless, given my exegesis, Buchanan’s scheme is inadequate. We should rather say that Abraham was initially justified at some time around Gn 12:1ff. It would be anachronistic, but consistent, to describe this as the point of Abraham’s union with Christ, or his actual justification. The reckoning of faith as righteousness (Gn 15:6) is not the ‘actual justification’ or, anachronistically, the initiation of Abraham’s union with Christ. Rather, it is a divine declarative justification based on Abraham’s continuing faith and its resultant continuing righteous status. The circumstances of this divine declaration explains that Abraham is, was, and will be, reckoned righteous by faith in God’s promise, not his works (Gn 15:6; Ro 4:3). Gn 15:6 is thus a declarative justification based on Abraham’s continuous faith. The justification of which James speaks in the Akedah (Gn 22:1-14; Jas 2:21-23) is strictly not ‘declarative’ but ‘demonstrative’, and based on works. Because faith produces works, works evidence faith. Works thus become a ‘continual evidence ’ of the ‘continuous instrument’, faith. ‘faith’ is ‘instrumental’ for justification. Works are ‘evidential’ of justification that has occured on the basis of faith only.

    Traditionally, evangelical theologians have criticised the Roman view on the basis that justification is not a process but a declaration leading to a status. However, as I have demonstrated, Calvin indeed used the Latin word prõcessus to describe justification, and maintained that justification had initial and ongoing aspects. In my view, there is nothing objectionable in conceiving of justification by faith apart from works as a ‘process’, as Calvin did, as long as that word is understood in the way Calvin understood it . Derived from Latin, prõcessus, ‘a going forward’, ‘process’ can simply denote ‘the action of going forward or on’ . It need not denote many ‘repeated’ or ‘reiterated’ actions, implying that the process ceases, but one entire ‘continuous’ ‘ongoing’ ‘progressing’ action. While either a ‘declaration’ of faith righteousness (for example, in the Anglican liturgy, in the General Confession in the service of Morning and Evening Prayer) or a ‘demonstration’ of faith righteousness by works (in our daily ‘works of faith’) may be repeated, the ‘continual progress’ or ‘status’ of justification remains unchanged.

    Schreiner correctly observes that ‘[t]he Pauline emphasis on faith cannot be consigned to the past as if it were a momentary decision. Faith is an ongoing reality in the lives of those who belong to God.’
    Punctilliar once-for-all justification wrongly isolates a saving moment in the believer’s past history. However, the moment for the believer to believe is the now, the present. We cannot trust now for times past nor for times future. It is in the present, in spite of our deadness (Ro 4:17-22) and our continuing ungodliness (Ro 4:5), that God calls us to trust his gracious promise, his once-for-all work of justification in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Ro 4:25-5:1, 9; 6:7), and to believe in God who calls the things not being as being (Ro 4:17). ‘Justification by faith’ indicates the type not the time of justification. As the believer continues in faith, he looks away from himself, to the risen Jesus, in whom his salvation is secure. He possesses no salvation apart from Jesus. Rather than say that I have Christ’s righteousness (though it is true, from the point of view of imputation), it is better to say that Christ is my righteousness, to whom I continue look by faith. This continued response of faith does not differ from the initial response, nor does the resultant faith-righteousness in any way differ, for Christ is the same. Rather, faith continues to apprehend God’s same saving promise and justifying act in Jesus death. Such persevering faith produces confidence . As Abraham’s justification continually progressed by faith (Gn 15:6) so may ours.

  2. Cameron December 18, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Brakel said,

    “Justification from eternity, at the time of Christ’s death, or upon the first act of faith, did not take place so as to exclude daily justification in reference to committed sins”.

    I would clarify, which you already did, that justification isn’t only a negation of sin (forgiveness of sin as Brakel mentions), but also entails the positive aspect of recieving Christ’s righteousness.

    In distinguishing Scripture from Rome, in terms of justification and in light of on-going justification, we could conclude:
    1. God fully justifies his elect in Christ and on Calvery. Even in this we are declared fully justified from God’s angle, hence “tetelestai”.
    2. From our angle, this work hasn’t been recieved by us yet. Regeneration, being born of the Spirit, reiceving true circumcision and given a heart of flesh, or initial conversion is required for us to know God has justified us from his angle, thus beomes our angle.

    Now the Roman Catholic equates justification with santification in that justification wont be kept, let alone obtained, apart from the synergistic process of recieving Christ’s merit and absolving sin via the Church’s sacraments, etc.

    3. From our angle, we have not fully experienced justification yet. Our sanctification maybe speeds up our justification (from our angle), but does not and cannot add to our justification. Maybe that’s where the clarification needs to be with Rome considering this view of continual justification. Catholics try to use the fact that Abraham was justified multiple times to back their own view.
    4. It’s also certain that even if/when we continually recieve forgiveness and continually recieve Christ’s righteousness (from our angle and experience) we ONLY recieve his forgiveness on the bases of Christ’s atonement on Calvery (not a re-presentation of the sacrifice as in the Roman Eucharist) and we ONLY recieve Christ’s righteousness through God given faith (which is distinguishable from works, yet inseperable from works) not faith + works (Roman Catholic view) or works alone (the Jew in Rom 2-4).


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