A Primer on Justification
Martin Luther called justification the doctrine by which ‘‘the church either stands or falls.” Calvin declared it the “hinge of the Reformation.” The Roman Catholic Church, at the Council of Trent (1546–63), where it dealt with the Protestant Reformation, recognized justification as the central doctrine at issue. This doctrine is the core of the gospel; it is indispensable. The Reformed church of the sixteenth century was purified by reaffirming clearly this doctrine, while Roman Catholicism was destroyed by denying it. There is a difference of opinion as to its precise meaning, but there is no difference of opinion at all concerning its indispensability to evangelism.
Not only does the church stand or fall by this doctrine, but the individual also. That is, dear reader, this doctrine is the doctrine by which you stand or fall before God. Nothing can be more important to you than to understand, believe, trust in, and spread this core doctrine of the Christian religion.
So far are we today from understanding the importance of this doctrine that we hardly ever hear it mentioned. When it is mentioned, it sounds very strange to us. The doctrine that is essential to salvation should not sound strange to people who profess to be saved Christians.
To illustrate how far our twentieth century is from what the sixteenth century considered the heart of the gospel, let me relate a true, though almost unbelievable, incident. I was once speaking to a group of business people on justification, and there was a journalist representing a local newspaper in attendance. I preached justification emphatically, clearly, earnestly, and, I hoped, persuasively. It was, therefore, rather discouraging to learn from the newspaper account that I had spoken the night before on the theme of “Just a vacation by faith!” Fly now, pay later! That’s what the journalist heard as the central truth of the Christian religion! Now, a journalist can never be totally devoid of intelligence, nor can I be absolutely meaningless in a presentation. A strange event such as this could happen only because the word justification is so strange to the ears of modern Christians. This would be less tragic if one’s eternal life did not depend on a correct understanding and sincere belief in justification by faith alone. Though the Bible teaches justification, and only one way of justification, there are many different and conflicting views of this vital doctrine. This primer presents five different and conflicting current understandings of this doctrine, only one of which can possibly be the true biblical and saving doctrine. These competing interpretations may be diagrammed as follows:
- Liberalism: Works → Justification – Faith
- Neoorthodoxy: Faith → Justification – Works
- Antinomianism: Faith → Justification – Works
- Roman Catholicism: Faith + Works → Justification
- Evangelicalism: Faith → Justification + Works
To Be Continued…
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.