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Protestants in Crisis over Justification by Faith

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version

Chapter 1 — The Reformation Doctrine

Two features in the recovery of the gospel by the Reformation stand out with great prominence. They are the centrality of justification by faith and the forensic nature of justification.

The Centrality of Justification

It is well known that Luther called justification the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae — the article of the standing and falling of the church. Said the Reformer:

This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. . . .Whoever departs from the article of justification does not know God and is an idolater.... If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time. . . . When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen.... Of this article nothing may be yielded or conceded.1

The Lutheran Confessions are united in upholding the centrality of justification in Christianity. The Augsburg Confession calls justification "the chief article of the Gospel"2 or "the doctrine . . . which ought to be the chief one in the Church."3 Melanchthon's famous Apology of the Augsburg Confession calls justification "the chief topic of Christian doctrine."4 And the last great Lutheran Confession, the Formula of Concord, likewise calls justification "the chief article in the entire Christian doctrine."5

The Lutheran stream of the Reformation was not alone in confessing the centrality of justification. Calvin also called it "the main hinge on which religion turns."6 John Bugenhagen summed up the stance of the whole Reformation when he wrote to the English people, "We have only one doctrine: Christ is our righteousness."7

The Forensic Nature of Justification

The Reformation was similarly united on the meaning of justification. For centuries justification had been fused and confounded with regeneration and sanctification. But by 1519 Luther began to make a sharp distinction between the righteousness which justifies the sinner and the righteousness of the Christian's life. Thereafter the Protestant Reformation understood justification to be a judicial verdict distinct from an act of inner healing. It was a declaring righteous and not a making righteous. God justifies the believing sinner by imputing to him the vicarious righteousness of Christ and not by infusing the quality of righteousness into him. Although God's act of justification is inseparable from the believer's inner renewal and sanctification, it must not be confounded with inner transformation.

In his famous "Disputation Concerning Justification" in 1536, Luther pointed out that justification is not a removal of sin from the nature of man.

Though sin remains, he [God] considers us to be righteous and pure, and that a man is so absolved, as if he had no sin, for Christ's sake. We truly thank God, because his imputation is greater than our impurity....

In short, the term "to be justified" means that a man is considered righteous.

The word for purifying, moreover, in Acts is the word for imputing. To purify the heart is to impute purification to the heart. God cleanses the Gentiles, that is, he considers them cleansed, because they have faith, although they are really sinners. Just as those animals let down from heaven by a rope were simply, really, and individually unclean, which Peter was unwilling to eat, nevertheless, God, as he pronounced those animals clean, which according to his own law were still unclean, so pronounces the Gentiles and all of us righteous, although as a matter of fact we are sinners just as those animals were unclean. For he begins in reality to cleanse. For he first purifies by imputation, then he gives the Holy Spirit, through whom he purifies even in substance. Faith cleanses through the remission of sins, the Holy Spirit cleanses through the effect. This is divine cleansing and purification which is let down from heaven, by faith and the Holy Spirit. This is spiritual theology, which philosophers do not understand, since they call righteousness a quality. In short, the hearts of the Gentiles are really unclean, but God considers them clean.8

The Augsburg Confession is preeminent among all the Lutheran Confessions. But for brilliant clarity on the forensic nature of justification, nothing surpasses the Formula of Concord (1577). We cannot accept the thesis, now proposed by some Lutheran scholars, that the Formula of Concord represents a slip into a legalistic scholasticism on the matter of forensic justification, or that it in any way betrays Luther's stance. Luther may have given expression to the gospel in a more dynamic way, but the issues raised by Osiander and the Council of Trent demanded that the gospel be preserved by careful definitiveness. The thirty years of controversy and reflection over the meaning of righteousness by faith did not blunt the sword of truth but only made it razor sharp.

The Formula of Concord places the entire question of justification in the setting of the poor sinner standing before the judgment tribunal of God. What righteousness can he successfully plead before the bar of God? The Formula of Concord answers that it is the righteousness of faith, which consists in "the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone, whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness. . . . Justify means to declare righteous."9 The Confession then says that "the renewal which follows justification of faith may not be confounded with the justification of faith."10

Neither renewal, sanctification, virtues nor good works are... our righteousness before God, nor are they to be constituted and set up as a part or cause of our righteousness, or otherwise under any pretext, title, or name whatever to be mingled in the article of justification as necessary and belonging thereto; but that the righteousness of faith consists alone in the forgiveness of sins out of pure grace, for the sake of Christ's merit alone.11

The Formula of Concord strictly forbids saying that righteousness by faith before God consists in both forgiveness of sins and the inner renewal wrought by the Holy Spirit. Although the Formula of Concord confesses that the indwelling of the Spirit will always accompany justification, "this indwelling of God is not the righteousness of faith of which St. Paul treats and which he calls iustitiam Dei, that is, the righteousness of God."12 In short, this great Lutheran Confession takes the position that the righteousness of faith is strictly forensic.

When we turn to the other branch of the Reformation, we see that Calvin rivals the authors of the Formula of Concord in his clarity on the issue of forensic justification. Calvin opposed Osiander for confounding justification and regeneration. Although they are never separate, Calvin contended that they must be distinguished. Justification is a declaring righteous and not a making righteous. It consists in the forgiveness of sins and the gracious imputation of Christ's vicarious righteousness to the believing sinner.13 Otto Heick is right when he says, "Calvin held to a strictly forensic view of justification."14

The Westminster Confession is as clear as any Protestant statement can be on the strictly forensic nature of justification. It declares:

Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone . . . by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them.15





1 Ewald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says: An Anthology, 3 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 2:703-4, 715,718.
2 Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII, 52, in Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing Rouse, 1921), p.91.
3 Augsburg Confession, Article XX, in Triglot Concordia, p.53.
4 Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV (II): "Of Justification," in Triglot Concordia, p.121.
5 The Formula of Concord, "Thorough Declaration," III, "Righteousness of Faith, "in Triglot Concordia, p.917.
6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20, 21 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), bk. 3, chap. 11, sec. 1.
7 Cited by J. F. Mozley, William Tyndale (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1971), p.54.
8 Martin Luther, "The Disputation Concerning Justification," Career of the Reformer, IV, ad. Lewis W. Spitz, Luther's Works, American ed., 54 Vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing Rouse; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955-1975), 34:166-69.
9 The Formula of Concord, "Thorough Declaration," III, "Righteousness of Faith," in Triglot Concordia, pp.919, 921.
10 Ibid., p.921.
11 Ibid., p.929.
12 Ibid., p.935.
13 See Calvin, Institutes, bk. 3, chap. 11.
14 Otto W. Heick, A History of Christian Thought, 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965-1966), 2:428.
15 The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, Chapter XI: "Of Justification," in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 3, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, 1877, reprint (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p.626.