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Modern Medieval Protestants: Why We (Still) Need the Doctrine of Justification

In the Middle Ages, for nearly half a century, the church was split into two or three groups that excommunicated one another, so that every Roman Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another. No one could say with certainty which contender was right. The church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form—the true church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution.

Along with this uncertainty, the rapacious, obscene, and acquisitive worldliness of the clergy—exemplified by successive popes who can be called Christian only with some sarcasm—had fostered cynicism. Sermons and pamphlets spread, excoriating the clergy and the hierarchy, including the pope. The preacher Michel Menot lamented, “Never could less devotion be found in the Church.” Pope Pius II wrote, “Christianity has no head whom all wish to obey. Neither the pope nor the emperor is rendered his due. There is no reverence, no obedience.” The masses regard “the pope and emperor as if they bore false titles and were mere painted objects.”

These comments were made more than 60 years before Martin Luther’s famous protest. By the turn of the 16th century, Erasmus could write, “The corruption of the Church, the degeneracy of the Holy See, are universally admitted. Reform has been loudly asked for, and I doubt whether in the whole history of Christianity the heads of the Church have been so grossly worldly as at the present moment.”

More Questions About Salvation

The legitimacy of the church was being called into question at the same time as its method for forgiving sins became more convoluted. As I explain at some length, the system of penance—that is, making satisfaction for sins—began merely in connection with church discipline. There was no single rule or calculus, but bishops sought to recall straying sheep by warnings and, in extreme cases, excommunication. Penance was reserved for such special cases, and it was basically a public repentance before the whole church.

By the Middle Ages, especially through Peter Lombard’s Sentences, penance took on a life of its own. Now every believer had to confess to a priest, with a specific calculus for what actions the offender had to perform to satisfy for each sin. Out of the practice of penance an elaborate system of works-righteousness evolved, with distinctions between mortal and venial sins, concupiscence and actual sin, and so forth.

Imagine a simple believer or even a pious priest who encounters the complex labyrinth of scholastic distinctions regarding merit, penance, and justification that we have touched on only briefly. Add to this the subtle debates over the meaning of these terms and their efficacy. It all seems like a complicated game and not even the referees can agree on the rules. Yet these are matters that touch on one’s personal salvation.

Luther Answers with Justification

Who are the true Christians, and what is the true church?

Luther sought to answer these questions. Counter-Reformation polemicists characterized Luther as a profligate monk seeking a cover for his license. However, Luther’s initial protest (reflected in the Ninety-five Theses) targeted the lack of seriousness with which the church was treating God’s majesty and holiness. It’s not that the doctors, priests, and monks took sin too seriously, but not seriously enough. One could buy an indulgence or say a few “Hail, Mary’s,” return to the brothel, and then do it all over again. “Just do what you can and God will take notice”—that was what Luther had been taught.

But he took God’s holiness and his own sinfulness seriously. He was the most scrupulous monk, scraping his conscience and wearing out confessors. Eventually, he broke down. He came to see God only as a terrifying figure. Even Christ was merely his hangman, tormenting him with the prospect of the last judgment when his works would be weighed.

At its core, the Reformation was a sharp turn from the sinner to the Savior.

The problem, Luther later said, was that he’d only heard about the righteousness God is—which condemns—not about the righteousness God gives as a free gift:

For they reduced sin as well as righteousness to some very minute motion of the soul. . . . And this tiny motion toward God (of which man is naturally capable) they imagine to be an act of loving God above everything else. . . . This is also the reason why there is, in the church today, such frequent relapse after confessions. The people do not know that they must still be justified, but they are confident that they are already justified; thus they come to ruin by their own sense of security, and the Devil does not need to raise a finger. This certainly is nothing else than to establish righteousness by means of works.

At its core, the Reformation was a sharp turn from the sinner to the Savior, from a lax penance (“Do what you can and God will do the rest”) to casting oneself entirely on Christ and his merits.

Modern Challenges to Justification

In our day, this mid-course correction has been challenged on myriad fronts—within Protestantism. Some say the doctrine of justification is irrelevant, or at least secondary to whatever cause we want to recruit Jesus for at the moment. Others are convinced the reformers simply misunderstood Paul. Yet the main question—How can sinners be reconciled to a holy God?—isn’t being given a clear answer. Many Protestants—even evangelicals for whom “penance” is alien—nevertheless relate to God in much the same way as a medieval person did. Understanding the doctrine of justification is as important as ever before.

My first volume of Justification traces the history that led to the Reformation doctrine, reaching back to the Scriptures and the best insights of the ancient church as well as medieval teachers. Without trying to make patristic sources say more than they do, I show that central elements of the evangelical doctrine were taught more clearly and consistently than we’re sometimes led to believe. At the same time, I explore how Augustine planted both wheat and weeds in the medieval garden, which Aquinas harvested.

Turning back toward ourselves and away from Christ is the perennial temptation of our sinful condition, even as Christians.

I tell the story of how subsequent theologians like Scotus and Ockham introduced a “Pelagianizing” drift that Luther knew well from his teachers, captured by the slogan, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.” We also meet the Benedictine abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, who was so influential for Luther and Calvin. The rest of volume 1 explains the reformers’ arguments in the context of their controversies with the papal church, and it highlights the Reformation’s deeply pastoral intention in teaching the doctrine.

Volume 2 focuses entirely on the biblical-theological and exegetical arguments, engaging contemporary challenges from biblical scholars, and concluding with an exploration of justification’s practical implications for Christian living and the church’s witness in the world. Beginning with a wide-angle lens, I propose a biblical-theological interpretation of God’s redemptive purposes in view of distinct covenants. From there, the focus moves closer, in concentric circles, toward the specific exegetical challenges being raised today against the Reformation doctrine of justification.

Turning back toward ourselves and away from Christ is the perennial temptation of our sinful condition, even as Christians. At a time when teenagers (I have four of them) are drawn to define their identity by superficial condemnations and justifications from Snapchat and Instagram, the precious truth of justification from God is as relevant as ever. Turning us outside of ourselves, looking up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love, this central gospel truth remains our only hope of salvation and the engine of joyful gratitude in the world.

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