The reality of the Christian gospel is not only an adjudicated right

but an actual presence of the Spirit of Christ.

Lawyers and judges often employ the Latin phrases de jure and de facto in their legal terminology and argumentation. This study will be employing those same phrases in reference to Christianity.

By definition, the phrase de jure means “by right” in accord with juridical declaration or pronouncement of the application of the law. The phrase de facto, on the other hand, means “in fact” or “in reality” as experienced in the actual circumstances of life.

The following hypothetical scenario should suffice to illustrate these phrases:

Suppose that someone has violated you, your family, or your possessions in a manner that is against the law of the land. You decide to take legal recourse in litigation against the offender. As the plaintiff you file a suit, and the case comes to court before the judge. The arguments are made by the lawyers, attempting to document their case by the testimony of various witnesses. After closing arguments the judge delivers the verdict: “The defendant is guilty. The plaintiff is awarded one million dollars ($1,000,000.00) in compensatory damages.”

You are now a millionaire de jure! By the pronouncement of the judge of the court, you are “by right” a millionaire. But since the defendant is broke, having spent what little money he did have on the lawyers for his defense, you have not received any of the money and may never see a dime of it. Though you are a millionaire de jure, you are not a millionaire de facto, for the fact of the matter is you have not received any tangible monies, and “in reality” you may never receive such.

Some plaintiffs might be content with the knowledge that they have won the case, having heard the announcement of the verdict that they have a legal right to collect one million dollars. Perhaps they would be satisfied with what appears to be a vacuous victory, because “it’s the principle of the thing.” Other plaintiffs would not be pleased to accept what appeared to be but a speculative legal fiction. They would be convinced that what is theirs de jure, by right of the law, should be theirs de facto, in actual reality, and they would not want to merely reckon that such could possibly be true actually in the future.

Would you be satisfied with being a millionaire de jure and not a millionaire de facto in the foregoing scenario? Think about it!


When these concepts are transferred to spiritual concerns, it becomes apparent that Protestant Christians have been advised for several centuries by their theological lawyers that they must be content with Christianity de jure without any real experience of Christianity de facto. The blessings and benefits of the Christian gospel are declared to accrue to the Christian “by right” of the historical redemptive work of Jesus Christ, but “in reality” these are not actually experienced subjectively for they must only be reckoned as valid and true from God’s perspective by faith.

Such an orientation of Christianity de jure causes the Christian religion to be ethereal and abstract ­ a speculative pursuit of philosophical academics discussing theoretical tenets held tenaciously by traditionalist theologians. Is it any wonder that some have questioned whether the Christian message is but a legal fiction of “pie in the sky bye and bye”? Practical people “with their feet on the ground” are not usually interested in being “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” Instead, they are interested in something real that can be experienced here and now, that will have an actual impact in their daily lives de facto.

Christian theology has, for the most part, been cast in legal and forensic concepts of Judaic and Roman law. When God is viewed primarily as the cosmic Judge in the heavenly courtroom making declarations of imputed acceptability and conferral of positional status de jure, then the central truth of the dynamic grace of God in Jesus Christ de facto is minimized or lost. Rather than the consideration of the vital indwelling presence of the risen and living Lord Jesus, Christian theology becomes the static study of past and punctiliar historical action. Christian theology becomes a knowledge-based epistemological emphasis on the propositional truths of an ideological belief-system formed into orthodox doctrines and creedal dogmas, rather than the ontological expression of the very Being and character of God in Christ by the Spirit.

The efficacious work of Jesus Christ is often focused solely on the historic death of Jesus Christ on the cross, rather than on the living reality of the resurrection-life of the risen and living Lord Jesus. Jesus becomes but the dispenser of objectified blessings and benefits ­ spiritual commodities and conditions (such as justification and salvation) applied to the Christian by theological transference ­ rather than a real divine Person dwelling internally within the spirit of an individual Christian in spiritual union, de facto.

Positing the merits of Christ’s redemptive work to the Christian de jure often leads to the inculcation of a positive mental attitude adjustment of “reckoning” that such is a heavenly reality before God, and visualizing one’s place and standing before God with a positive self-image. Then comes the paranoia and insecurity of questioning whether this is but an exercise in psyching oneself into being self-convinced. Faith is misunderstood as positive thinking, rather than the spiritual and volitional receptivity of Christ’s activity de facto.

When Christianity de jure is thus portrayed only as objectified justification, imputation, and reconciliation, then Christian living is inevitably cast in legalistic and moralistic ethical inculcations to attempt to behave in consistency with what you have been declared to be, and thus to justify God in demonstrating that He was indeed justified in justifying you. This in contradistinction to the de facto reality of the indwelling presence of the Righteous One, Jesus Christ (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14), manifesting His life (II Cor. 4:10,11) in our behavior by divine grace.

We must not be satisfied with only Christianity de jure. Standing alone, it is a serious and accursed (Gal. 1:8,9) perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that sells short the reality of all that Jesus Christ has come to be and to do de facto in His restored humanity.


“In reality” Christianity is “in fact” the vital dynamic of the ontological life of the risen Lord Jesus expressing His divine character within Christian behavior to the glory of God. We must not be content with anything other than the completeness of Christianity de facto.

The Christian is not just righteous by right of the righteous act of Jesus Christ being credited to him, or by the righteousness of Jesus Christ being imputed to him in order to be declared righteous. The Christian is also righteous by the fact of the reality of the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, actually living in him, and being allowed to live out His righteous character in his behavior.

The Christian is not just reconciled by right of the divine-human enmity being resolved in Jesus’ death, so that an objective harmony of filial relationship can be established. The Christian is also reconciled by the fact of a spiritual exchange and spiritual union with Jesus Christ, allowing for reconciliation in interpersonal relationships.

Christianity is not just a forensic and judicial right to identification with the expiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent right to exoneration, acquittal, pardon and forgiveness in the heavenly courtroom. The Christian is experientially given a new identity as a “new creature” (II Cor. 5:17), a “new man” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), by the indwelling presence of Jesus Christ, allowing for the Christ-life to be evidenced by the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22, 23)

Christianity is not just assent to the historical life and death of Jesus Christ on earth in Palestine almost two millennium ago, or the imputation of the benefit of “eternal life” to the Christian as recorded in the “Book of Life.” The Christian is in fact spiritually regenerated with the very life of Jesus Christ Himself, allowing for the manifestation of His life in our mortal bodies.

Christianity is not just “positional truths” of inclusion by representation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, nor the assumption of a new position, placement, standing or status “in Christ” with God. The Christian participates in fact in the “actual truths” of the death of the “old man” identity (Rom. 6:6) in order to be raised to “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4),” allowing for the actual life and character of Christ to be lived out in the Christian.

This call for the fullness of Christianity de facto is not a new theological emphasis. It is the new covenant emphasis of the New Testament writers, inspired as they were by the Holy Spirit. It was regrettably diminished in Protestant theology when the reformers over-reacted to the Roman doctrine of “infused grace” which allegedly gave the Christian a spiritual boost for the cooperative performance of righteousness. Protestant theologians rightly rejected any infused deification or divinization of man, and the power-boosted performance of righteousness by “works.” Instead they emphasized the objective and forensic elements of the work of Christ, shying away from the subjective spiritual realities of “union with Christ” and “spiritual identity” to the extent that they were effectively denied. A tragic loss!

So as not to improperly indict all of the reformers, we should cite the comment of John Calvin in his famous Institutes, “so long as we are without Christ and separated from Him, nothing which He suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which He received from the Father, He must become ours and dwell in us.”1

Making the point that the “right” of Christianity de jure must be accompanied by the “reality” of Christianity de facto, L.S. Thornton wrote, “God does not mock us… If He has brought us into the position of sons in His family, He has also taken corresponding steps to transform us spiritually, so that the inward reality of our life may correspond to the objective fact accomplished.”2

In discussing justification, T.F. Torrance notes that within the Scottish Reformation, “a place of centrality is given to the union of God and man in Christ, and therefore of our ‘blessed conjunction’ or ‘society’ or ‘fraternity’ with Christ. That union with Christ lies at the heart of our righteousness in Him, for it is through that union that we actually participate in His holy life. …It is in and through our union with Him, that all that is His becomes ours. Justification is not only the forgiveness of sins, but the bestowal of a positive righteousness that derives from beyond us, and which we have through union with Christ.”3

Scottish preacher, James S. Stewart, likewise emphasizes the necessity of a real and spiritual union with Christ, noting that, “Everything depends on a man’s union with a living, present Saviour. In the absence of that union, even the gospel of the cross loses its saving efficacy. …Atonement remains impersonal and largely irrelevant until we make contact with the One who atones: and contact of a vital kind is possible only if Jesus is risen and living now.”4

Let it be clearly noted that the emphasis being made herein on Christianity de facto does not mean that the objective emphases of the historical and personal implications of Christ’s work on our behalf, for us and as us, are not in fact true. The objective propositions of Christianity de jure are not to be denied, but serve as the necessary foundational undergirding for the more subjective spiritual realities. The de facto realities of regeneration and spiritual union with Christ are not more factual or accurate than the de jure concepts of imputation and declared righteousness, but they are actualized in the personal experience of living in the present circumstances of life here on earth by the dynamic of Christ Himself. They are thus more experientially “real” to the Christian who is attempting to implement Christianity in his everyday life.

In terms of the practical outworking and outliving of the life of Jesus Christ in Christian behavior, it is the de facto reality of the indwelling Spirit of Christ that must be emphasized. Soon after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, some of the post-reformation Catholic theologians, noting the almost exclusively objective de jure arguments of the Protestant theologians, surmised that if a Protestant Christian were ever to exhibit righteous behavior in practice such must of necessity have been activated by the self-effort of human performance by “works” (so abhorred by the Protestants), since the Protestants made no allowance for the internal dynamic of God’s grace in a de facto expression of Christianity. It was a accurate indictment on Protestant theology, which has not been resolved by a balanced emphasis on the objective and subjective elements of Christ’s work, even to this day.

That is the reason for this call to Christianity de facto ­ a sincere desire to see the life of Jesus Christ lived out practically in Christian behavior to the glory of God!


1    Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bk. III, Chapt. i, p. 1. Trans. Beveridge. London: James Clarke. 1949. pg. 463.

2    Thornton, L.S., The Common Life in the Body of Christ. Westminster. 1946. pg. 124.

3    Torrance, Thomas F., Theology in Reconstruction. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans. 1965. pg. 151.

4    Stewart, James S., A Man in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1975. pg. 227.

©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.  Used by permission of the author.


CHRISTIANITY DEFACTO [James A. Fowler]          1


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