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The Reformation was, in many ways, a politically-motivated religious movement of the 16th century. Even Roman Catholics today affirm that the Church of the time was in desperate need of reform. Yet, Martin Luther came to understand that the true dividing line between him and Rome was not in papal authority, the sale of indulgences, the existence of purgatory, or even the place of tradition. The fundamental difference was found in how the gospel worked… in other words, on what basis is a person justified before God?

Infusion versus Imputation

The Protestants differed from Roman Catholic on justification in several important ways. First, they believed that justification was a declaration of righteousness made by God regarding human beings. They countered the Catholic notion that justification was God’s action of “making” someone righteous by infusing grace into them. Instead, justification was being “declared” righteous, not being “made” righteous.

The Protestants believed that righteousness was not infused into the believer, but imputed to the believer. In other words, God justifies sinners by seeing them as righteous on account of Christ’s righteousness reckoned or imputed to them. How does God justify the ungodly? By declaring an ungodly person as “righteous” based on the righteousness of someone else.

God does not accept sinners by making them righteous, or by giving them heavenly grace, but solely on the basis of the death and resurrection of His Son in the place of the sinner.

Christ’s death was the moment in which he took our sins upon himself and died a substitutionary death in the place of the sinner. In the moment of salvation or justification, the sinner’s wickedness is placed on Christ and Christ’s perfect righteousness is placed on the sinner. Luther called this “the Great Exchange.” Christ takes our sin and we take His righteousness. God then declares us “righteous” on the basis of Christ’s work alone.

Faith Alone 

The way to appropriate this righteousness is by faith alone. One must simply receive the salvation that God has provided in Christ Jesus. One receives this salvation by faith alone.

“Faith alone” according to the Reformers, does not refer to a mere mental assent to certain propositional truths or Christian doctrines, but an all-encompassing trust in the mercy of God for salvation. The Reformers saw faith itself as a gift of God, given to be the instrument by which one appropriates Christ’s righteousness and can then be declared “justified” or “righteous” before God.

Good Works? 
It should be noted here that the Reformers did believe in the necessity of good works in the Christian’s life. As Calvin said, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” The Reformers believed that good works would necessarily follow as an outworking of true faith. Good works were commanded and expected of the Christian, but good works did not form the basis for a person’s justification before God.

This doctrine differed sharply from the Roman Catholic theology of the day, which saw saving “faith” as including good works. One earned salvation by cooperating with God’s grace which was infused into the believer at the moment of baptism. The Reformers rejected the idea of cooperation and synergism, because they believed any compromise on this doctrine left room for human boasting, as well as the abolishment of any assurance that one was truly faithful.

The Protestants believed that Roman Catholic theology had mixed “justification” and “sanctification” and had thus mixed faith and works. I should note that Protestants had a robust doctrine of sanctification, the doctrine of growing in Christ and doing good works. None of the Reformers believed that Christians were free to sin as much as they wanted because of their salvation. They believed that sanctification followed justification as the place where one worked out personal salvation and cooperated with the Holy Spirit in growing in grace.

The Protestants sought to distinguish between these two doctrines, in order to show how the good works of the Christian are necessary and indeed important, though they in no way form the basis of one’s salvation. The Catholics argued that divorcing justification from sanctification would lead to unrighteous living.

The Protestants believed that the Catholic doctrine of justification led to human despondency. Without assurance of right standing before God, a person could never rest in God’s mercy and unmerited love. Instead, people were driven to despair as they sought to buy and earn their salvation before God. No one could ever be sure of salvation and thus people were chained to the prison of their mind, always questioning and wondering whether or not their good works would suffice.

The Roman Catholic theologians and pastors believed that the Protestant doctrine of justification sola fide would necessarily lead to lawlessness. If a person’s good works are unnecessary to gain a right standing before God and avoid his just wrath, why would a person do them? If one can be assured of salvation based on faith alone, then the rationale for good works is ripped away. There is no incentive to holy living and righteous behavior. The Roman Catholics were worried that the Protestant doctrine would lead to wicked behavior and lawlessness.

The Protestants believed that it was the Catholic system of theology which ultimately led to self-centered, unrighteous living. If a person’s good works are motivated by the desire to gain heaven, they are not done selflessly, but selfishly – and thus are not truly good at all. According to the Catholics, a person does good works in order to earn favor with God.

The Protestants believed that only the doctrine of justification by faith alone properly freed people to love their neighbors without thought of reward or selfish prize. Once one was assured of salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ’s finished work of redemption, one could freely love people unselfishly, with thoughts of their neighbor’s wellbeing instead of their eternal state.

Some Thoughts about Luther

Luther himself was a traditionalist. If you go into most Lutheran churches, you will see that the service itself is not too different from the Roman Catholic services. Luther had no problem with liturgy, written prayers, vestments. He had no problem with stained glassed windows and statues and beautiful sanctuaries. He maintained his belief that Jesus Christ is physically present in the Lord’s Supper, so that when one eats the bread and drinks the wine, they are chewing on Christ’s flesh itself. Other Protestants would take a more symbolic view, or would defend the idea of Christ being spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper.

Luther also defended the idea of baptizing infants. He believed that the infant could actually believe the gospel.

Luther translated the Scriptures into German, and his translation became for the German people much like the King James Version became for English speaking nations. He married several years later. He continued to write. Towards the end of his life, his testimony was marred by a severe anti-Semitic bent. Some of his writings, sadly, paved the way for Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews.

Though we would disagree with Luther in many ways, he himself would say, “I am both a sinner and a saint.” And his life showed that. On his deathbed in 1546, his last words were, “We are beggars. This is true.” His life indicates the truth of that statement. We beg for God’s mercy and receive it in the robe of Christ’s righteousness, becoming simultaneously righteous and sinful – but forgiven by God.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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0 thoughts on “Justification – The Defining Doctrine of the Reformation”

  1. brannon says:

    Trevin, thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Great summary.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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