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The Doctrine of Justification

The doctrine on Justification by faith proved to be one of the galvanising factors that led the early reformation of the Church. Although, it cannot be solely attributed as a single motivating factor, it certainly played an integral part to the movement and had a long-lasting effect on the Church’s theology. This essay shall briefly examine what the Doctrine means, why it became so schismatic, and how important it was in driving the early reformers. The examination of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification, which had remained unchallenged throughout the medieval period, only became possible with the advent of the new technology of the printing press; this human advancement should not be underestimated in its significance to the Reformation. Simultaneously, the rise in the Humanist approach to academia brought about a further challenge to the reigning school of scholastic thought; this culminated in a cultural and intellectual upheaval during the period known as the Renaissance. Therefore, it is important to recognise that the Reformation was not only a matter of theological importance but also a socio-political phenomenon, made possible within the historical backdrop of the Renaissance.

What is Justification before God?

The Ordo Salutis is a Latin translation pertaining to God’s plan for the salvation of man; it lays out the scriptural basis for the stages in which an individual is saved. This concept has faced much scrutiny by theologians, even since the age of the early church fathers, and remains subject to much Academic debate today. It is a vast subject which is not the focus of this essay; however, it is important to note that Justification before God is one of the important steps towards our salvation; what position this step holds within the ordo salutis is not examined in this essay.

Grudem defines Justification as the ‘right legal standing before God’.[1] He argues that the Greek word δικαιων (justify), used throughout the Septuagint and NT, is used in opposition to the word καταγινωσκω (condemn). Although citing many examples of this such use throughout scripture, perhaps most strongly, he notes Deut 25:1, in which judges define justify as meaning ‘declaring to be righteous and not guilty’, whereas condemn means to be ‘declared guilty’.[2] Grudem states that this declaration of guilt or non-guilt is specifically reserved for being in the sight of God.[3]This is given with the caveat: that Justification does not represent a change in our internal being (i.e. full innocence), only that God declares there will be no penalty to pay for past, present or future sins. It is the theologian John Murray who provides us with this helpful analogy:

‘Regeneration is an act of God in us, justification is a judgement of God with respect to us. The distinction is like that of the distinction between the act of a surgeon and the act of a judge. The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us. This is not what a judge does, he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status’.[4]

Is it Faith alone that Justifies us before God? The Roman Catholic divide

It is here that we find a divide, the Roman Catholic understanding of justification sees an ­infusion of righteousness, an internal change, that relies on collaboration with charitable works to be sustained.[5] Justification, in Catholic dogma, is given first by the grace of God, a free initiative which then asks for a free response from man.[6] The scriptural basis for this can be found in James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone”. This appears as a contrast to the writings of Paul in his letter to the Romans; furthermore, as a direct contradiction to his letter to the Ephesians.

Much debate surrounds this topic, and a more thorough investigation would be required to give ample time to both views. The schism centres around merit and how one achieves the grace of God; ultimately, Paul’s writings in Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans indicate that grace is a gift from God, bestowed, and not achieved through any merit of man.[7] Martin Luther, and the early reformers, held to this view: extolled in Eph 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith”. They affirmed most vehemently that justification came only by faith alone, and not by a combination of faith, merit, and good works.

In what manner did this drive the Reformation?

Adherence to the Catholic view on justification meant that an individual could fall from God’s grace without a continual effort on their own part. Without this, a person could not be saved. Good works could become a nebulous term and the Church clergy at this time had a poor knowledge of reading, Latin, and theology; as a result, they were not all best placed to provide any meaningful advice on the matter. More significantly, the trade in indulgences, a Papal ordinance used to reduce one’s punishment for sins was a growth market. Martin Luther was a professor of Holy scripture at the University of Wittenberg at this time; Chadwick elaborates that Luther found the doctrine of Indulgences most troubling.[8] As a particularly pious man, Luther abhorred the idea of people no longer requiring acts of penance. Although the indulgence wasn’t explicit that this was the intention, it was becoming clear that one could pay their way out of purgatory; a preacher named Tetzel was deployed to bring this message to the people.[9] Further to this, the Medieval Church had become a very powerful institution and the money raised from these sales was being appropriated for various building projects, including the construction of St. Pauls. The Papacy also filtered the funds into various political projects in a changing Europe, including military campaigns. Through this, and in part to this, the Papacy’s intellectual and theological primacy was being viewed differently. It was in October 1517, when Luther, upon being shown a copy of the archbishop’s instructions to Tetzel, conducted a pivotal action to the entire reformation: he fastened his ‘Ninety-five Theses upon Indulgences’ to the church door in Wittenberg. More significantly, Luther announced his intention to defend his view through the intellectual discipline of disputation.[10]

The Reformation gained ground in its spread across Europe, primarily through engagement in intellectual debate; this allowed for any point of doctrine to undergo the rigours of Academia. In his article, Richard Serina Jr, concedes that it is impossible to ‘mention the start of the Reformation without reference to the Ninety-Five Theses’, yet without the academic climate, and in particular the tradition of interscholastic debate, there would be no foundation to the movement.[11]This view of the reformation raises the interesting point that it was not a single point of doctrine which catalysed the movement. During the formative years of the Reformation (1516-1521), this rich tradition allowed for continual conversation around contested points of theology between the rival schools.[12] It also provided opportunity for the main protagonists to develop their intellectual viewpoints and solidify their theology.

This intra-Christian conflict, was so pervasive during the formative years of the Reformation that it drove the scholar Fink to pose the fundamental question: was Luther’s Doctrine of Justification different from that of the Reformation’s doctrine of Justification? He posits that what is generally assumed as the ‘material principle of protestant identity’ was not naturally adopted by the early reformers.[13]What Fink does believe is that the early reformers: Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin did adopt, whilst unified by some core convictions, was a ‘rhetoric of dissent’ against the Catholic Church.[14] Fink notes:

“Reformation Historians, in recent decades, have encouraged an awareness of the diversity of currents in the Reformation to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain a grasp on those features that are common to the reformation as a whole, and to define their content precisely”.[15]


Generally, scholarship holds that Luther’s understanding of Justification by faith alone springs from a more accurate reading of the apostle Paul.[16]What can be clearly demonstrated is that this was Luther opinion, argued most competently and most convincingly on his part. The academic climate of the time allowed for Luther to robustly exhort, whilst the printing press allowed for a wider distribution of his view, which led to many taking on his opinions. It would not do justice to reduce Luther’s influence on the Reformation to this sole point of Doctrine or indeed to say that this reading of the Doctrine was the single point of dissent in which the Reformation found its fulcrum. As Chadwick points out, perhaps hyperbolically, ‘at the beginning of the 16th century, everyone that mattered in the western church was crying out for reformation’.[17]Vested interests abound, and the Reformation was all encompassing; it was simultaneously political, intellectual, and theological in nature. The Doctrine of Justification by faith alone played a significant part but did not solely rely upon it as a means of change within Ecclesiastical structures.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (London: IVP,2020) p886 [2] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p886 [3] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p887 [4] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955) p121 [5] Geoffrey Chapman, Catechism of the Catholic Church, (London: Cassel Imprint, 1994) p435 [6]Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2025 [7] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p892 [8]Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, (London:Penguin, 1990) p21 [9]Chadwick, The Reformation, p20 [10]Chadwick, The Reformation, p21 [11]Richard Serina Jr, ‘A Debatable Theology: Medieval Disputation, the Wittenberg Reformation and Luther’s Heidelberg Theses’, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 83.1-2, (2019) p83-96. [12] Serina Jr, ‘A debatable Theology..’ [13] David Fink, ‘Was there a reformation Doctrine of Justification?’, Harvard Theological Review, 103.2 (2010) p205-235. [14] Fink, ‘Was there a reformation Doctrine of Justification?’ p211 [15] Fink on quoting the work of Hamn in his article, ‘Was there a reformation Doctrine of Justification?’ p213 [16] Fink, ‘Was there a reformation Doctrine of Justification?’ p206 [17] Chadwick, The Reformation, p8

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