Justification by Faith Alone: The Article of the Standing or Falling Church
This article first appeared in the special Reformation issue of the November 1, 2017 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Q. 70 What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which He pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in His sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
Q. 71 How is justification an act of His free grace?
A. Although Christ, by His obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepts the satisfaction from a surety, which He might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, His own only Son, imputing His righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is His gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
Q. 72 What is justifying faith?
A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and His righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
Q. 73 How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and His righteousness.1
Five hundred years! On the 31st October 1517, in an attempt to have the issue of indulgences openly debated, Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses or propositions to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, under the title “Disputation to Explain the Virtue of Indulgences.” According to the Church of Rome, the church and specifically the pope had the power to dispense forgiveness or pardon from the punishment of sin. Such forgiveness was made available to sinners by way of the sale of indulgences. The purchase of indulgences was said to enable sinners to buy their way out of purgatory into heaven. It was not so much the concept of indulgences that initially agitated Luther, but it was the abuse of indulgences that led Luther to act in October 1517. Though it was not his intention, Luther’s ninety-five theses set in motion the sixteenth-century Reformation. However, it ought to be noted that the issue of indulgences was not the central issue of the Reformation. Underlying and connected to the issue of indulgences was the more fundamental and, ultimately, more distinguishing doctrinal issue of the Reformation, namely, justification by faith alone.
Indisputably, justification by faith alone was the fundamental doctrine of the Reformation. It was this doctrine that led to the fragmentation of the Christian church as it then existed; a fragmentation that not only has continued, but which has expanded in the intervening years. Why such a serious fragmentation? Because what was and what is at stake is the gospel itself! At issue in the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the very basis of our salvation.
Justification by faith alone was a doctrine that Luther himself had already embraced prior to the events in Wittenberg in October 1517. It was a truth that Luther came to after a bitter internal struggle. Initially, Luther was of the view that he could earn his salvation through the keeping of the law of God. However, try as he might, he found no peace in his many pious exercises. In fact, the more he strove to keep the law of God, the greater he felt the weight of his sin. He could not escape altogether his anger, his envy, his hatred, and his pride. Luther identified with Paul’s words, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). At that time, he had yet to learn to add with Paul, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25).
In particular, Luther struggled to make sense of Paul’s words in Romans 1:17, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Here is Luther’s own description of his struggle:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately on Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. 2
Luther had thought that “the righteousness of God” referred to the righteous demands that the law of God imposed upon sinners. By the grace of God, he came to realize that by the phrase “the righteousness of God” Paul was not referring to the righteous demands of the law, but to the righteousness that God had provided. To Luther’s relief, he discovered that “the righteousness of God” referred to the righteousness that God had freely and graciously provided in His Son! It was not a righteousness that any man could attain to by means of his own exertion and merit, but it was a righteousness that God freely granted to sinners on the basis of Christ’s merits and that sinners received by means of faith. Luther wrote,
I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, He justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.
In grasping the truth of justification by faith alone, Luther was delivered from the bondage of self-inflicted penance and enabled to drink in the fresh air of the grace of God. The doctrine of justification by faith alone was for Luther the sum and substance of the gospel, the core of his theology, the central truth of Christianity, the article of the standing or falling church, a truth never to “be given up or compromised, even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed.”3
Luther was not alone in his unswerving advocacy of justification by faith alone. In fact, there was no significant difference among the leading sixteenth-century Reformers as to the essential understanding of this doctrine. Like Luther, John Calvin maintained the centrality and importance of justification by faith alone. Calvin described the doctrine as “the main hinge on which religion turns.”
Why was this doctrine so important to Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers? Why was it so central to the Reformation? Why ought it to be of the utmost interest to the church today? Because this doctrine deals with how the guilt of our sins can be removed and how we can receive the forgiveness of God. This doctrine reveals the only way that sinners can be reconciled to God and how we can be viewed as righteous in His sight. These issues are intensely personal and go to the heart of our salvation. It should be appreciated that the controversy of the sixteenth-century Reformation over justification by faith alone concerned such fundamental and eternally important questions as: How can I be saved? How can I, as a sinner, possibly be reconciled to a holy and righteous God? How can I be declared righteous before God? On what basis will God pardon or declare a sinner such as me to be righteous in His sight?
This doctrine was central to the Reformation not only because of the fundamental importance of the subject, but also because of the sharp difference of views between the Reformers and the Church of Rome. In many respects, the difference of views was encapsulated in two different words, infusion and imputation.4
The essence of the charge that the Reformers levelled against the Church of Rome was that while she proclaimed accurately who Jesus Christ was and what He had accomplished with respect to the salvation of sinners, nonetheless she perverted the grace of God by maintaining erroneous views of the grounds on which and the process through which the blessings that Jesus Christ procured on the cross were conveyed to sinners. At issue was whether justification was wholly attributable to the grace of God and to the work of Jesus Christ, or whether it was proper to ascribe to men and to their endeavors an active and contributory role in salvation.
For the Church of Rome, the meaning of justification was bound up in the Latin root of the word. The word “justification” comes from the Latin verb, justificare. Justificare itself is derived from two other Latin words, justus meaning “justice” or “righteousness” and ficare meaning “to make” or “to do.” So justificare means literally “to make just” or “to make righteous.”5 Influenced by the etymology of the word, the Church of Rome viewed justification as the act of making a person to be just. Hence, the justification of a sinner was declared by Council of Trent (1543-1563) to be “not only the remission of sin, but also sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend that he may be an heir according to hope of everlasting life.”6
This view led that same Council to enact, among other things, the following canons:
If any one says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.
If anyone says 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 remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.7
These statements and declarations remain the position of the Church of Rome today.
The Church of Rome views justification as requiring an unjust person to be changed and to be made righteous. Rome acknowledges that men are fallen, and that they do not have the power within themselves to attain unto righteousness. In order for that to happen, Rome contends that men must be the recipients of grace, grace that they receive through the sacrament of baptism.
R. C. Sproul helpfully outlines Rome’s view: In baptism, the grace of justification, sometimes called the grace of the righteousness of Christ, is poured into the soul. This is called infusion. Without the assistance of the grace of justification, a person cannot be saved. Roman Catholicism teaches that you need to have the righteousness of Christ infused into your soul in order to be saved.8
Furthermore, as Sproul goes on to note,
…[I]n order to be saved, several things have to happen. First, you must cooperate with and assent to this grace to such a degree that righteousness truly inheres within you. This grace is necessary, but its presence alone is not enough for salvation. You must cooperate with it, agree to it, and work with it to such a degree that righteousness is truly in you. When that happens, you are placed in a state of justification before God. You remain in that state as long as you do not commit mortal sin.9
Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers repudiated Rome’s view of justification, identifying it as essentially the false doctrine of justification by the works of the law that Paul anathematized in Galatians 3-5. The Reformers viewed justification as a man’s legal or forensic state before God. It was to be declared righteous in the sight of God. They rejected Rome’s teaching of an infused righteousness and of grace working in the sinner in order that the sinner may attain unto justification. For the Reformers, justification was not an act of God that made the sinner to be holy. It was not concerned with the change of the sinner’s actual spiritual condition. Rather, it involved the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the sinner, Christ’s perfect righteousness being put to the sinner’s account. The righteousness by which a man is justified, as Luther put it, was a foreign righteousness. It was not his own righteousness; rather, it was the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
This is the view that is found in all the major Protestant Creeds. One may consult the Augsburg Confession, 1530, Article IV; the French Confession, 1559, Article XVIII; the Belgic Confession, 1561, Articles XXII & XXIII; the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, Q & A, 60, 61; the Second Helvetic Confession, 1566, chapter XV; and the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1643, chapter XI.
John Murray rightly declares,
Justification by faith alone is the jubilee trumpet of the gospel because it proclaims the gospel to the poor and destitute whose only door of hope is to roll themselves in total helplessness upon the grace and power and righteousness of the Redeemer of the lost.10
Too many churches that once stood squarely on the truth of justification by faith alone have fallen or are falling away from this fundamental doctrine of the Word of God. The front on which the warfare over this doctrine is being fought is expanding. No longer is the battle only against Rome’s false conception of justification by faith, but now the battle extends to those who propound the error of the Federal Vision.
Five hundred years on there remains a desperate need for Reformed believers to know the Scriptures and their confessional standards in order that they may defend this doctrine. The relevance and urgency of this doctrine cannot be overstated. Justification by faith alone must be confessed. Luther declared that justification by faith was, “the article by which the church stands or falls.” It is also true to say that justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which all shall personally stand or fall before the judgment seat of Christ.
1 Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/As 70-73.
2 Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960), 34:336, 337.
3 Luther, Smalcald Articles (Part 2, Art. 1), in the Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 292.
4 R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, (P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2007), 2:41.
5 Sproul, Truths We Confess, 41.
6 John H. Leith ed., Creeds of the Churches (John Knox Press, Louisville, 1982), 411.
7 Leith, Creeds, Canon 9 and 11, 421.
8 Sproul, 42.
9 Sproul, 42.
10 Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977), 2:217.