The Reformation understanding of justification is that it is by grace through faith and by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.


Justification was the central doctrine of the Christian faith for Martin Luther, and his articulation of it set the terms for the sixteenth-century debates between Catholicism and Protestantism. It drove a theological and liturgical revolution and also raised numerous biblical and pastoral problems. Attempts at reconciliation on this point at Regensburg in 1541 proved futile and the disagreement between the two sides become codified at the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent. While it is hyperbole to claim that it is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, it remains of critical importance in the distinction between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

Luther and Justification in the Reformation

The basic elements and concerns of the Reformation doctrine of justification were set by Martin Luther (1483-1546) whose personal struggles with the question of how he, a sinner, could stand before a holy God, combined with his academic studies of the book of Romans and the Psalms, and his pastoral concerns over the apparent detachment of God’s grace from any kind of inward penitence which the sale of indulgences by Johann Tetzel (ca. 1465-1519). As a result of the confluence of these three, he developed his understanding of justification between the years 1515 and 1520, and placed justification at the very center of his theological project.

While popular mythology, fueled by Luther’s own later (and inaccurate) autobiographical statements, has Luther making a sudden breakthrough on justification while studying Romans 1:17, in fact his position emerged over time as the result of a set of subsidiary changes in his thinking on a number of areas. He was first of all indebted to the theology of the medieval via moderna, which made the movement into a state of grace the result of God’s declaration, not the individual’s intrinsic righteousness. Yet he also rejected the moderni’s commitment to the idea that fallen human beings could exert sufficient effort to trigger God’s declaration: his studies of Paul led him to believe that baptism symbolized death and resurrection and that fallen human beings were therefore morally dead and completely impotent to effect any movement towards God, a position he elaborated with great polemical pungency in his 1525 riposte to Erasmus (1466-1536), On the Bondage of the Will.

Luther saw this human impotence as reflected in his famous contrast of the law and the gospel, a theme which emerges most spectacularly in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 and which shapes his thinking thereafter. Here, the law serves only to point human beings towards their duty to God and their fellows, while providing no power for its fulfillment. It therefore serves only to condemn them before God. By contrast, the gospel is a promise of salvation which needs only to be believed. This connects to Luther’s understanding of the work of Christ: Christ has fulfilled the law and undergone its penalty; those who believe in him have this vicarious – or, to use Luther’s terminology, alien – obedience credited to them. Thus, they stand fully righteous before God, but on the basic of the extrinsic righteousness of Christ. That the world does not recognize them as such is only to be expected, given that Christ’s righteousness on the cross was hidden and considered offensive by the Jews and folly by the Gentiles.

While the church of Luther’s day had no formal definition of justification, and therefore Luther’s position could not be declared heretical, it was nonetheless true that this view of justification posed a lethal challenge to church authority because it subverted the priest’s authority by making faith, rather than the sacraments, the instruments of salvation. It also required a liturgical reorientation which placed vernacular reading and preaching of Scripture and not the mass at the center of Christian worship.

While the Reformation doctrine of justification is often characterized as forensic because of its declaratory quality and the role it assigns to legal condemnation, Luther himself cast his position in terms of conjugal language, with Christ’s righteousness and the believer’s sins being joyfully exchanged in the union of faith as a groom and his bride’s property are exchanged in the bond of marriage. It was Luther’s younger colleague, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) who developed the more specifically forensic language, although it is clear that Luther felt no tension between his approach and that of his friend: both conjugal and forensic analogies were legitimate ways of expressing the biblical truth.

While Luther’s understanding of justification does not appear to have been a major factor in the Reformed theology of the early Zurich reformation under Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531)¸justification soon became a normative part of Reformed theology, as shown in the work of Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), John Calvin (1509=64) and others. It was also a point of continual controversy between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic church, not simply because of its implications for church authority but also because of its perceived biblical and practical/pastoral weaknesses.

Biblically, Luther’s approach seemed to contradict the teaching of the book of James. Luther himself handled this difficulty with a typically dramatic flourish: he simply relegated the book of James to deutero-canonical status. Other Protestants, including Melanchthon, were unwilling to solve the matter in quite such a drastic way and offered interpretations of James which harmonized his teaching with that of Paul by stressing the inseparability of justification by faith and works as an outward demonstration of the same.

This connected to the perceived practical/pastoral weaknesses of the position: try as they might, Protestants found themselves vulnerable to the Roman Catholic accusation that their understanding of justification inevitably undermined the need for good works and pressed inexorably towards an antinomian position. The Luther of the early 1520s had argued that good works flowed as a natural response of gratitude to God for his work in Christ, but as the years went by it became clear that the reality was far more complicated. Lutherans faced their own antinomian crisis as early as the late 1520s. The result was that Luther produced his Small Catechism (1529) which presented the law-gospel contrast in typically opposed terms but elaborated upon exactly what duties the law demanded and therefore implicitly pointed towards the underlying principles of the law as a guide for civic life.

Reformed theology was dogged by the problem throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as evidenced, for example, by the controversy over the posthumous publication of the works of Tobias Crisp (1600-43), the clash between Richard Baxter (1615-91) and John Owen (1616-83), and the debates over imputation at the Westminster Assembly. As a result, debates over the relationship of justification to sanctification within the bounds of orthodox Protestantism continue to the present day.

Regensburg, Trent, and Later Reformation Protestantism

An attempt at reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants on justification was attempted at the Diet of Regensburg in 1541 where delegates from all sides attempted to come to an agreement. The papal legate was Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), and both Bucer and Calvin were present as Protestant representatives. While some agreement was reached at the Diet itself, Luther (who had not been present) was lukewarm regarding the outcome and, when the pope decisively rejected the findings, all hope for reunion was really ended.

The formal Roman Catholic response to Luther’s doctrine came in the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent (1545-63) where the Council asserted that justification was the result of co-operation between God and human beings (thus rejecting the radical anti-Pelagian foundation of Protestant soteriology) and by impartation, not imputation, of Christ’s righteousness, with the sacraments having a central instrumental role. In addition, the Council also rejected the Protestant notion of personal assurance as undermining the moral imperatives of the Christian life.

Post-Tridentine orthodox Protestantism in the sixteenth century remained within the basic framework set forth by Luther, with no major difference between Lutheran and Reformed traditions on this point. Indeed, in his preface to his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed theologian, Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) asserted that the law-gospel distinction was fundamental to correct exegesis and correct theology. What differences did exist were in the matter of the status and nature of sanctification and therefore the status of the law in the life of the church. While both traditions (at least, Lutheranism after Luther) asserted three roles for the law (pedagogical, civil, and moral), the third use – the use of the law as a moral guide to regulate the behavior of the believer) was more positively asserted in Reformed theology than in Lutheranism. This is largely because of the central role the law-gospel dialectic and justification came to play in Lutheran dogmatics and, as so often with Lutheranism, because of the dominant role the life and teaching of Luther himself played in forming the tradition’s teaching and priorities. The problem of sanctification, however, remained an issue for Protestants and (as noted above) continued to dominate intra-Protestant discussions and Protestant-Roman Catholic polemics.


While many Protestants such as John Owen were and are willing to acknowledge that some Roman Catholics were and are saved on the basis of that which they deny (i.e., justification by Christ’s righteousness received by faith), justification remains a key difference between Roman and Protestant communions, having implications as it does for everything from church authority to sacraments to liturgy to good works. While the claim, ascribed to Luther, that justification is the article by which the church stands or falls (there are numerous articles, such as the Trinity, which are also essential) it is clear that justification, as lying at the heart of the sixteenth-century break in the western church, must be central to any discussion of Roman Catholic-Protestant relations today.

Further Reading

  • Matthew Barrett, The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls (Crossway)
  • Michael Horton, Justification, 2 vols. (Zondervan)
  • Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian Man. Available online here.
  • The Decrees of the Council of Trent on Justification. Available online here.

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