Historical Veins of Justification
The Doctrine of Justification, Part 2
In our second
article on the doctrine of justification, we will trace the history
of this doctrine from the Patristic Age to the Reformation.
often speak of what they call "the development of doctrine."
This does not mean that the church has invented new doctrines throughout
its history. What it does mean that the church gains a deeper understanding
of what the Scriptures teach on a certain doctrine. This results
in a clarification of the original intent of what the Scripture
says or the author's intended meaning. The doctrine has been in
Scripture all along but new insights or clarifications of its meaning
and application are now apprehended.
legitimately ask the question why this occurs if the doctrine has
been on the pages of God's Word since it was written. The answer
to this question is that the Church frequently has faced new situations
and challenges that revealed the need for a clearer restatement
of the doctrine itself.
the case with the doctrine of justification. In the Patristic times,
although the doctrine of justification was not explained in the
same detail as were other doctrines, there was an agreed consensus
that the grace of God and the righteousness of Christ were the basis
of the sinner's hope for acceptance with God.
this Patristic understanding was lost during the Medieval times
and only recovered by Martin Luther and others at the time of the
Reformation. It is our purpose in this article to study these events.
As the study of Church History is the study of the loss and recovery
of the Gospel, we will note that this critical doctrine was obscured
by being overlaid with non-Biblical terminology. But in the providence
of God, it was gloriously recovered by Luther and others. We will
divide our discussion into three sections: the times of the Church
Fathers, the Medieval decline, and the Reformation.
TIMES OF THE CHURCH FATHERS
be surprised to learn that the Church Fathers, or Patristic theologians,
were not as clear on the doctrine of justification as many have
been led to believe. This is despite the claim that the Reformers
made when they stated that their doctrine did not differ materially
from what had been taught by Jerome, Augustine, and others. There
are two responses that can be given to this.
doctrine of justification, or how a person can have a right relationship
with God, did not receive the same amount of attention and study
as did other doctrines during the time of the early Church. The
main doctrines under attack included the doctrine of God, the doctrine
of Christ, and the doctrine of man.
attack was on the nature of God Himself. Orthodox theology upheld
the doctrine of the Trinity and Jesus was indeed God. These theological
differences were definitively answered at Church Councils at Nicea,
Ephesus, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. The Creeds taught that God
exists on the high level of Trinity and that Jesus is God. One should
also know that these discussions also defended the deity of the
the triumph of Nicene theology were discussions concerning the Person
of Christ Himself. Various views were put forth that denied that
Jesus possessed two wills, that He truly was God and was a man.
Many of these controversies occurred concurrently with the disputes
over the doctrine of God and were settled definitively with the
confession that Jesus is both true God and true man.
who were involved in these controversies included Tertullian who
upheld the doctrine of the trinity and Athanasius who taught that
Jesus was God and not the first created being as Arius taught.
these controversies, Augustine, whom many consider to be the greatest
of the Church Fathers, entered into another theological battle.
This was fought over the doctrine of man or anthropology with Pelagius,
a British monk. The Council of Orange upheld the teaching of Augustine
that man was totally sinful and needed the grace of God. Basically
Augustine taught the inability of man to change apart from the power
and grace of God. He made the salvation of man totally dependent
In the second
place, there were other teachings that Augustine contributed to
the theology of the Church that distorted the Biblical teaching
of justification. In the first place, he taught that to justify
means to make righteous; a moral change in the person.
There is evidence that he rejected the idea that to justify
meant to declare righteous or a change in one's legal status.
Augustine's interpretation of the nature of justification was to
have tremendous consequences during the subsequent history of the
also taught that the term justification described the entire course
of the Christian life. He did not limit it to the declaration that
the individual is righteous due to the imputation of Christ's righteousness.
Augustine used justification to describe all that took place in
the life of the Christian from conversion until his final glorification.
This idea was expanded during the Middle Ages and obscured the legal
nature of justification.
this time, there was agreement that salvation was by God's grace
through faith without much detailed explanation. Salvation was of
God and it was sufficient to meet the need of man who was lost in
his sin. There was not a detailed explanation regarding how that
grace was conferred upon man. Man needed the grace of God and God
freely gave that grace to men in Christ.
Ages saw a decline in the manner by which the doctrine of salvation
was taught by the church. Although many reasons and explanations
can be given as to why this took place, the basic reason was that
the Church assumed the role of mediator between God and man.
great increase in the power of the Bishop of Rome, the Church of
Rome gained in importance and prestige. It was not long before teachings
alien to the Bible began to taught by the Church. There was the
growth of the sacramental system by which the sacraments, increased
to seven from the original two, could confer grace. The emphasis
on the saints who by their works were able to do more than what
God required allowed the teaching of what came to be known as the
Treasury of Merit. This was a supply of grace that could be given
to those who were in need. Of course, only the Church had the authority
to do this.
increased emphasis on the efficacy of the sacraments to convey grace
coupled with Augustine's view that justification included the entire
Christian experience, it was not strange to find that the Biblical
doctrine of justification was nearly lost. Baptism was portrayed
as the entrance into the Christian life with the power to regenerate
and pardon original sin. Grace was infused into the individual and
he was now capable of co-operating with that grace to advance to
perfection in the Christian life.
non-Biblical doctrines such as purgatory, penance, prayers for the
dead, etc. were added to the Church's teachings, the Gospel was
nearly lost. Here and there were individuals who maintained the
true belief in the Gospel of grace but there were not many.
the greatest tragedy that occurred in the Medieval Ages was the
loss of the Scriptures in the hearts and lives of the people. Although
people desired to own a complete copy of the Scriptures, this was
not to be realized until the invention of printing by moveable type.
Nevertheless, there is evidence to believe that the people did possess
an understanding of God's Word. When the knowledge of the Scriptures
was lost, they were open to receive non-Biblical teaching.
themselves were available only in the Latin language and the worship
service, or the Mass, was conducted exclusively in Latin. The focal
point of the service itself was the Eucharist or the Celebration
of the death of Christ. This only added to this general ignorance
of the Gospel itself.
RECOVERY AT THE REFORMATION
It is impossible
to separate the recovery of the Biblical doctrine of justification
from Martin Luther. The story of his life provides a commentary
on how this precious truth was rescued from its obscurity.
are acquainted with Luther's life and his struggles to find peace
with God. Despite the fact that he was an Augustinan monk, Luther
did not have peace of heart. It was through his study of the Psalms
and Romans that Luther saw on the pages of God's Word a gracious
God Who saved sinners through Christ. This marvelous salvation was
received by faith alone, not by the reception of the sacraments.
It is necessary to emphasize that Luther came to this position over
a period of months, if not years. However, once he grasped that
he was justified through the merits of Christ alone and God's righteousness
was not an impossible standard to which he had to attain but God's
free gift in Christ and received by faith alone, Luther's life was
It is entirely
possible that Martin Luther would have lived his entire life and
ministered as a monk with this truth remaining a personal possession.
However, an event that shook his life, and ultimately the world
occurred. This was the sale of indulgences in Mainz.
to repay a debt to the Fugger family, Archbishop Albrecht needed
to raise funds. Pope Leo X cooperated by permitting an indulgence
to be proclaimed in his bishopric. John Tetzel, a Dominican monk,
was the preacher who proclaimed this indulgence. Indulgences, or
the remission from the temporary punishment of sin in Purgatory,
had first been proclaimed in connection with the Crusades, the attempts
to liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem from infidel hands. Finding
they were a lucrative source of income, the Popes continued to issue
heard that this indulgence was being proclaimed, he reacted with
great indignation. He knew that the Germans, desirous to have their
relatives and loved ones, loosed from the fires of Purgatory, would
purchase them. Luther was aware that the income from these indulgences
would be used to sustain the sordid lifestyle of many in Rome. He
was convinced that the Church was using the natural compassion of
the German people for their relatives and friends as a means of
extorting money from them.
did little to calm Luther when it was reported that Tetzel had a
jingle that spoke of the supposed efficacy of the indulgences. It
went something like this:
the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from Purgatory springs.
to Luther this was nothing less than commerce in the immortal souls
of men. Interestingly enough at this time, it does not appear that
Luther rejected the efficacy of the indulgences themselves. We must
always keep in mind that Luther was a monk who lived in Medieval
times. He came slowly to the knowledge of the truth.
so incensed that he wrote his ninety-five theses and posted them
on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. So it was through
these historical circumstances that the Reformation began.
It is not
possible to trace through all the events that followed from this
declaration. However, the great doctrine that was recovered was
the truth that justification is by faith alone. A person can stand
in the presence of a holy God, clothed not with his own righteousness,
but with the righteousness of Christ imputed to his account.
explanation of this doctrine was worked out over a period of time
and it is true to say that different Reformers placed their emphasis
on differing aspects of this cardinal doctrine. However, it is a
fact that when the doctrine of justification was recovered from
its obscurity, what was recovered was nothing less than the Gospel
itself. What was nearly lost in the darkness of the Middle Ages
had, in the providence of God, been set free to work in the hearts
Let us allow
Martin Luther himself to have the final word on this great subject.
He speaks not as a theologian but as a Christian. Although it is
a lengthy extract, it well merits being read carefully.
Dr. Martin Luther, the unworthy evangelist of the Lord Jesus Christ,
thus think and thus affirm: That this article, namely, that faith
alone, without works, justifies us before God, can never be overthrown,
for Christ alone, the Son of God, died for our sins; but if Christ
alone takes away our sins, then men, with all their works, are
to be excluded from all concurrence in procuring the pardon of
sin and justification. Nor can I embrace Christ otherwise than
by faith alone, He cannot be apprehended by works. But if faith,
before works follow, apprehended the Redeemer, it is undoubtedly
true that faith alone, before works and without works, appropriates
the benefits of redemption, which is no other than justification,
or deliverance from sin. This is our doctrine; so the Holy Spirit
teaches, and the whole Christian Church. In this, by the grace
of God, will we stand fast. Amen.
have been well if all who profess the Lord Jesus Christ had adopted
Luther's confession. However, as we shall see in our next article,
the doctrine of justification by faith is once again coming under