The Crux of the Reformation

One of the oddest aspects of contemporary American Protestantism is the lukewarm attachment if not indifference by evangelicals to the doctrine of justification. If any particular doctrine was responsible for the rupture of Christendom, it was the understanding of salvation that resulted from Reformers’ teaching on justification by faith alone. Of course, the formal principle of the Reformation, that is, the doctrine of sola Scriptura, challenged the authority of the papacy and the theological tradition of Rome in a way that also intensified the challenge of Protestantism. But the doctrine of Scripture was a formal matter—a question of how to resolve controversies within the church. Should resolution depend upon the teaching handed down to the church because of the official authority of those responsible for such teaching? Or should the resolution depend upon what God has revealed in his Word? As important as these questions were, the destiny of man’s soul was not as directly involved in their answers as it was in the question of how a person is right with God.

Roman Catholics and Protestants still disagree on this most basic of Christian subjects: “what must I do to be saved?” That is, they used to disagree. But lately the disagreement on salvation has calmed down. In fact, for fifteen years the idea of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” has become a real possibility because of a conference and document that bear this name. In 1985, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship and Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life gathered a group of American Christian leaders to explore putting an end to Roman Catholic-Protestant antagonism in order to fashion a common religious response to secularism and to end needless competition between the two branches of Western Christianity. In 1992 Neuhaus and Colson assembled leaders from both traditions to work on statements that would clarify ways in which Roman Catholics and Protestants embrace a common witness. By the time “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” came out, Neuhaus had converted from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. But this did not prevent Protestant leaders such as Bill Bright, J. I. Packer, Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, and Pat Robertson from signing a statement that affirmed, “All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ” and went on to declare that evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics were in fact such siblings in Christ. This was news to many Roman Catholics and Protestants because of important differences regarding the nature of the church, membership, and the sacraments. But the biggest difficulty was that Roman Catholics and Protestants were supposed to disagree about the gospel. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” suggested that those previously on different sides of the Protestant Reformation now confessed a common Christ and a common mission.

The reasons that prompted evangelical Protestants to sign such a statement certainly varied. But one reason that could not have influenced those deliberations or decisions was an understanding of the fundamental questions regarding salvation that separated Protestants and Roman Catholics at the Reformation. For anyone who still believed that justification by faith alone went to the heart of the gospel would have needed to ignore the clear teachings, as well as the practices that followed from them, that defined Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

Development of Doctrine

The doctrine of justification by faith alone was a long time in coming. In the early church some of the church fathers spoke of justification by faith but did not distinguish it clearly from regeneration. Often the early church conceived of regeneration as taking place in baptism which included forgiveness of sins. The lines separating justification as a legal declaration of pardon from sanctification as moral renewal continued to be murky in the medieval church. Scholastic theologians invariably taught that justification included two components—a declaration of forgiveness and an infusion of righteousness. Thomas Aquinas effectively codified these views by teaching that in justification grace is infused in man, thus making him just, and so this moral renovation becomes the basis for the forgiveness of sins. This gave momentum to the idea of merit, that a man was justified partly on the basis of his own good works.

Martin Luther experienced firsthand the burden that this understanding of salvation placed upon those who wanted a clear conscience. In his marvelous biography of Luther, Roland Bainton captures well the discomfort that Rome’s teaching presented to a zealous monk who wanted to be right with God. Luther was keenly aware of his sins, and yet could find no remedy in Rome’s scheme. According to Bainton, the sacrament of penance was designed especially for sinners with guilty consciences. “This was only required of them, that they should confess all their wrongdoing and seek absolution.” Luther was scrupulous in availing himself of this apparent relief from the guilt of sin. Yet, he became haunted that he could never confess all of his sins. Not only was he incapable of remembering them all, but he believed that he was engaged in self-deceit or overlooking sins to salve his conscience. Luther also began to see that the problem was deeper than a list of all his actual sins. Depravity was a human condition, not merely a series of acts. This was the impasse to which Luther came before looking at Scripture more carefully on the nature of justification. According to Bainton, “Sins to be forgiven must be confessed. To be confessed they must be recognized and remembered. If they are not recognized and remembered, they cannot be confessed. If they are not confessed, they cannot be forgiven.” As elaborate as Rome’s ministry was, it had no comfort to offer a sinner. The reason was that salvation according to the Roman Catholic system required an initial act of contrition in order for it to be completed by the gift of merit granted through God’s grace. In other words, Rome believed (and still believes) that salvation is the reward for an accumulation of merit on the part of the Christian.

Soon Luther began to teach and write on justification by faith alone in ways that both challenged the teachings of Rome and its entire system of meriting salvation by good works. The first Lutheran confession of faith, the Augsburg Confession (1530), put the matter of justification this way in Article IV: “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.” Luther’s teaching found support not just in Lutheran but also in Reformed churches. John Calvin, who had converted to the Protestant cause at the age of 24 and only two years later found himself ministering reluctantly in Geneva, put the nub of the issue with Rome well in a catechism he devised for the newly Reformed church:

Master: You say then that before we are born again and formed anew by the Spirit of God, we can do nothing but sin, just as a bad tree can only produce bad fruit? (Matthew 7:18.)

Student: Altogether so. For whatever semblance works may have in the eyes of men, they are nevertheless evil, as long as the heart to which God chiefly looks is depraved.

Master: Hence you conclude, that we cannot by any merits anticipate God or call forth his beneficence; or rather that all the works which we try or engage in, subject us to his anger and condemnation?

Student: I understand so; and therefore mere mercy, without any respect to works, (Titus 3:5), embraces and accepts us freely in Christ, by attributing his righteousness to us as if it were our own, and not imputing our sins to us.

Master: In what way, then, do you say that we are justified by faith?

Student: Because, while we embrace the promises of the gospel with sure heartfelt confidence, we in a manner obtain possession of the righteousness of which I speak.

Master: This then is your meaning—that as righteousness is offered to us by the gospel, so we receive it by faith?

Student: It is so.

The doctrine of justification was breathtakingly simple and cut through the Gordian Knot that had developed in Roman Catholic theology, thanks to confusion over forgiveness and merit, works and grace. First, Protestants denied that man could do anything to merit God’s favor because of the depths of human depravity. Any work performed by a person living after the fall, even an apparently good one, was infected with sin, and could not merit God’s favor. Second, the only remedy for this state was the sovereign grace of God in both the redeeming work of Christ and the application of that work through the Holy Spirit. Christ lived a perfect life and accomplished the righteousness that God requires of all men. He also suffered the penalty for sin, and triumphed over sin and death by rising from the dead. Christ’s satisfaction of divine justice with his death (passive obedience), and his achievement of holiness through a sinless life (active obedience) became the basis for salvation from and forgiveness of sin. The way a believer received Christ’s righteousness was not through works or human effort but through faith, by receiving and resting alone on Christ’s work. Furthermore, this faith was a gift bestowed by the regenerating work of the Spirit. All of a sudden, the gospel offered real comfort for weary and guilt-ridden sinners. Christians received forgiveness for all their sins (past and future), and obtained the alien or imputed righteousness of Christ merely by believing upon him.

The doctrine of justification also involved a reformation of Christian devotion. Instead of viewing the church as a dispenser of grace to all of those who expressed the right amount of contrition and did the right number of good deeds, the church became the instrument by which God proclaimed the good news of forgiveness and built up believers in faith. And instead of regarding worship as a time when during the mass Christ’s sacrifice was repeated to pay for believers’ sins (both living and dead), worship became a time to offer up praise and thanksgiving for Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and to be encouraged in holiness. In other words, without justification Christians needed the church to complete Christ’s ministry. But with justification, Christians learned from the church to trust completely in the all-sufficient work of Christ. The Christian life changed from one of fear and a constant sense of guilt to one of a life of thanksgiving and service.

The papacy condemned the views of Protestants as early as 1520 when Pope Leo X issued a bull against Luther. But not until the Council of Trent, which met from 1545 to 1563, did Rome’s official view on justification take shape. In the Canons of Trent, Rome embraced a view of justification that denied imputation and insisted on infused righteousness (moral renovation) as the basis for salvation. According to Trent, “the alone formal cause is the justice of God . . . whereby He makes us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation.” In effect, justification was an inwrought grace of holiness that depended on the believer’s cooperation. Rome did not stop with a positive declaration. It added an anathema (“let him be accursed”) to the following view of the merit of good works: “If any one says, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ . . . does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life—. . . let him be anathema.”

The Protestant Reformation represented an opportunity for Rome to clarify its teaching that had been muddy and unspecified throughout much of the Middle Ages. But instead of refining its understanding the gospel, Rome dug in its heels and chose to endorse a view of salvation almost the direct opposite of Protestantism and more definite than anything that had existed in the church prior to 1517. Where Protestants recognized genuine comfort in the redeeming work of Christ, Rome only saw a threat to the way it thought Christians became righteous. In so doing, Rome turned Christ from the accomplisher of redemption to an accomplice of the good works of believers. For Protestants, righteousness came completely from Christ; for Rome righteousness came by Christians with the help of grace making themselves good.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together: An Oxymoron

Despite the incredible comfort that comes with knowing that we no longer face condemnation because Christ faced it for us, that he lived a perfect life, so that we now are clothed with his righteousness, evangelical Protestants in recent years have been willing to look at the old differences of the sixteenth century as museum pieces from the Christian past without ongoing relevance for the church’s ministry or Protestant self-understanding. That may seem like an overstatement except that some of Evangelicalism’s most distinguished leaders have participated in the project, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” In 1997, the meeting of evangelicals and Roman Catholics produced a follow-up document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Gift of Salvation.” The statement attempted to use Protestant language such as justification by faith alone, justification as a declaration of God based on Christ’s righteousness, and justification as completely gracious. But the language also gave lots of room for Roman Catholics to read the statement in ways compatible with Trent (minus the anathemas, of course). It affirmed that justification is “entirely God’s gift” and not earned by human works. This was no change from Rome’s contention that the good works man performed to cooperate with God’s grace were also the result of grace. “The Gift of Salvation” also said that faith, the means by which we receive justification, involves repentance and the response of the whole person, including “the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life.” The statement further also declared that in justification came the gift of the Holy Spirit “through whom the love of God is poured forth into our hearts.” As much as Evangelicals and Catholics Together tried to use Protestant phrases, it ended up blurring those important distinctions to justification that regarded it as an act of God’s free grace, a pardon from all of the believer’s sin, a reckoning of the believer as righteous, only because of the righteousness of Christ, received by the lone instrument of faith.

John Murray of Westminster Seminary knew that the differences between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants could not be so easily resolved. In his essay, “The Crux of the Reformation,” he wrote that the basic religious question is “How can a man be just with God?” After sin, this question took on added weight because man is “wrong with God.” Murray argued that Rome still answered the question of how to become right with God the way it answered the question at Trent. Justification for Rome “consists in renovation and sanctification.” Even those modern Roman Catholic theologians who were willing to regard justification as declarative still believed the righteousness that allowed God to declare the verdict of “justified” was an infused righteousness, not an imputed righteousness from Christ’s own merits. According to Murray, to make “justification consist in renovation and sanctification is to eliminate from the gospel that which meets our basic need as sinners.” “The answer that makes the lame man leap as an hart and the tongue of the dumb sing . . . is the proclamation that a sinner is accepted with God because he is clothed with a righteousness in which omniscience can find no spot and perfect holiness no blemish.” This is why Murray concluded that the worthy heirs of Paul and the Reformation must maintain and defend a gospel “of a full, perfect, and irrevocable justification by free gift through faith in Jesus Christ, on the basis of a righteousness undefiled and undefilable.”

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is why, contrary to contemporary developments, Roman Catholics and Protestants of the evangelium are not together.

Dr. D.G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Protestantism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


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