Oct 14, 2021

The Doctrine of Justification Confessionally Defined

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Here’s an excerpt from The Doctrine of Justification Confessionally Defined, Chad Van Dixhoorn’s contribution to the October issue of Tabletalk

Ten years after Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, Lutheran theologians and princes began to work on a statement of faith that became the Augsburg Confession (1530). By this point, it was clear that a defining article of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification, since one of the priorities for evangelical believers, as Protestants were then known, was to confess clearly how Christians come to benefit from the grace of God through Christ. Thus, after offering articles on God, sin and the work of Jesus, the Lutherans, as they would later be called, offered a fourth article, “Of Justification.” The article clearly stated that we cannot be justified before God by our “own strength, merits, or works,” that we are justified for Christ’s sake, and by faith.

It was a good start. What the Augsburg Confession had done was significant, for it summarized the basic building blocks of a thoroughly biblical doctrine. But the article on justification was brief, shorter than the Augsburg article on “New Obedience” and much shorter than the article on “Repentance.” And it was unclear: the justification article ended with a glance at Romans 3 and 4 when it said that God imputes faith as “righteousness,” but it did not explain what this means.

It was not long before Reformed Protestants were writing their own confessions, and once the movement started, it seemed as though it would not stop. At its peak, or perhaps at a very high plateau, almost fifty confessions and catechisms were produced in twenty years. Nearly every one of these summaries of Scripture dealt with the doctrine of justification. But an especially important cluster of confessional documents appeared during the early Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation: the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

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