Celebrations in 2017 of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation will return again and again to the subject of justification by faith alone, one of the Reformation’s most critical rediscoveries. That subject is so important that in one sense we cannot study it enough. On the other hand, part of me wonders why we seem to have so much trouble understanding and holding on to a doctrine so vital. Is the doctrine so complicated that we cannot remember it? Is the Bible’s teaching so obscure that we cannot penetrate it?
In fact, the Bible is crystal clear and the doctrine is relatively simple. So why did so many in the church miss it before—and after—the Reformation? Why do some Protestant biblical scholars suggest that the Bible is not clear or that Martin Luther and John Calvin were wrong about what Paul teaches? Why do some Protestant theologians compromise and/or confuse the doctrine? Why do some Protestant church leaders see no serious differences between their views on justification and those of the Roman Catholic Church? Of course, books have been written to answer these questions, but on one level the answer is easy: failure to embrace the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith is a spiritual problem—a very serious spiritual failing. It is a failure to grasp fully the Bible’s teaching on God, Christ, sin, grace, faith, and peace with God. The spiritual problem for those who reject the biblical doctrine of justification recovered by the Reformation is that they cannot give all glory to God. They must make a contribution, however small, to their own justification. They are not content with Christ alone and His grace alone.
Martin Luther came to understand justification only after a spiritual crisis in his life. John Calvin came to understand it after his conversion. For both of them, study of the Bible showed them the character of the work of Christ and the role of faith in receiving His mercy and the peace of conscience that the Christian can enjoy.
For Lutherans, the doctrine is given eloquent expression in the Augsburg Confession (1530), Article IV:
It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21–26 and 4:5.
John Calvin wrote clearly and passionately as a young man of twenty-five about this doctrine in the first chapter of his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Christ’s righteousness, which alone can bear the sight of God because it alone is perfect, must appear in court on our behalf, and stand surety for us in judgment. Received from God, this righteousness is brought to us and imputed to us, just as if it were ours. (I.32)
Calvin greatly expanded his Institutes in 1541 and devoted a whole chapter to justification. There he wrote that justification
is the principal article of the Christian religion, so that each one may take greater pains and care to know it. For if we do not know what God’s will toward us is, we have no foundation on which to establish our salvation or build us up in piety and fear of God. (I.6)
We see here how Calvin stressed both the objective and the subjective sides of justification. Objectively, we are actually made right with God by the work of Christ, which the sinner receives by faith alone. Subjectively, when we understand justification, we experience peace with God and growing confidence in living for God. Surely, this doctrine is absolutely central to Christian faith and life.
The Reformers found this doctrine of justification in many places in the Bible, but recognized that Paul presented it with particular clarity in his letter to the Romans. While Romans contains profound and occasionally difficult matters, the main line of Paul’s message is clear and straightforward. We can see its simplicity by highlighting the main elements of his teaching:
None is righteous, no, not one. (3:10)
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (3:23)
By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight. (3:20)
The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law ... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (3:21–22)
[We are] justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (3:24–25)
What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. (3:27)
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (4:4–5)
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his [Abraham’s] offspring. (4:16)
No distrust made him [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (4:20–21)
Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (5:1–2)
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (5:8)
If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift of grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. (5:15)
Paul’s doctrine of justification shows clearly (1) that all humans are sinners, helpless to save themselves; (2) that only the perfect work of Jesus saves sinners; (3) that only faith—not works at all—receives the saving effect of Jesus’ work; (4) that God in Christ receives all the glory for justification; (5) that this justification brings peace to the heart and mind of the believer.
In the midst of our celebrations of the Reformation, let us not lose the crucial and simple center: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. ... For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:19–21). This message is the gospel that the whole world needs. It is also the message that every church and every Christian heart needs. Let us celebrate and teach it clearly and faithfully this year and every year.