Introduction: Justification

This is the article of faith by which the church stands when it is held clearly and preached truly, or by which it falls if it is corrupted in form and ignored in proclamation. Luther came to experience it prior to his clear affirmation of it. He was driven to a mature statement of it by continued invocation of Scripture and consultation with a conscience informed by the biblical view of humanity’s lapse into sin.

Luther, throughout his preaching and teaching ministry, maintained a deep sense of the internal operations of righteousness for renewal. As he came to articulate imputed righteousness more clearly, he did not lose the concept that the true Christian wants internal righteousness also. This too comes under the umbrella of faith. In his preface to Romans, written around 1516, he wrote, “Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly” [Romans, Preface, Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976 reprint of Zondervan, 1954), xvii].

His understanding of faith alone at this time maintained some ambiguities. “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous,” he observed, “and fulfills the law.” But in what sense does faith fulfill the law? “For out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. Thus good works come out of faith.” In this way, said Luther, by faith we establish the law rather than abolish it [ xv].

He also wrote, virtually identifying faith with righteousness, but clearly connected to Christ’s work as mediator, “Righteousness, then, is such a faith and is called ‘God’s righteousness,’ or the ‘righteousness that avails before God,’ because God gives it and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ, our Mediator, and makes a man give to every man what he owes him. For through faith a man becomes sinless and comes to take pleasure in God’s commandments” [xvii].

At the same time, Luther taught that believers always “acknowledge themselves to be sinners,” and that we have not true and perfect inward righteousness. We must, therefore, be righteous “from without;” that is, “we are righteous ‘outside ourselves’ when our righteousness does not flow from our works; but is ours alone by divine imputation. Such imputation, however, is not merited by us, nor does it lie within our power” [Romans, 83].

In his discussion of Romans 5, Luther argued that the true energy of faith is that it yearns for and desires to know “Christ and His favor which gives us His righteousness” [Romans, 90]. The Christian, therefore, while being sanctified as a true outcome of real faith, is at the same justified. As he becomes righteous, he is looked upon as already righteous. “He is always in sin and always in justification,” Luther wrote. “He is always a sinner, but also always repentant and so always righteous” [Romans, 168]. Repentance shows the reality of the new birth, that we put no confidence in our works, have a proper evaluation of the pervasive requirements of the law, and look to Christ for righteousness.

In 1519 when he wrote on Two Kinds of Righteousness, he rightly spoke of our being justified by an “alien righteousness,” and in affirming that “through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours.” This righteousness is an “infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ” [Timothy Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 156].

Also, encouragingly, he wrote, “He who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.” So far, so good. The difficulty comes when Luther explained how the alien righteousness that is in Christ alone does its full work in us. “Alien righteousness is not instilled all at once,” Luther explained, “but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death” [156, 157].

Though righteousness was by faith alone—trust in Christ— and was “alien” to humanity—not generated internally by human effort but given from the outside—Luther did not perceive it exclusively in terms of imputation (though he mentioned it in Romans) but as instilled in us. Christ’s instillation of righteousness was set in opposition to original sin, rather than condemnation. Christ “drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow” [157]. He even nurtured the same concept in his commentary on Galatians in 1519 when he said, “Every one who believes in Christ is righteous; not yet fully in point of fact, but in hope. For he has begun to be justified and healed.”

By 1520, however, Luther had begun to write in terms of imputation, and our being reckoned righteous for the sake of Christ’s righteousness. In The Freedom of the Christian Man he said that we are “justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.” With those merits of Christ, the bride’s sins cannot destroy her “since they are laid on Christ and swallowed up in him. And she has that righteousness in Christ her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins.” Even as He took our place in death as if He Himself had sinned, so the church is “endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.”

In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), Melancthon argues with clarity and thoroughness for the centrality of faith in the justification of sinners as opposed to works. He dissects with skill the various ideas of merit contained in the scholastic theology, denies their validity, and says in scores of ways, “By faith, therefore, for Christ’s sake we receive the forgiveness of sin” [118]. Or again, “We accept his blessings and receive them because of his mercy rather than because of our own merits” [115]. “It is surely amazing that our opponents are unmoved by the many passages in the Scriptures that clearly attribute justification to faith and specifically deny it to works” [122].

Within these statements, however, remnants of confusion remain, which were clarified later in the confessional progress of Protestantism. For example, Melancthon wrote, “Therefore we are justified by faith alone, justification being understood as making an unrighteous man righteous or effecting his regeneration” [117]. At another place he states, on the basis of drawing conclusions from Scripture, “By faith alone we receive the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, and by faith alone we are justified, that is, out of unrighteous we are made righteous and regenerated men” [123]. Though he is clear on faith, and clear that justification is not from our works, or from any mere mental assent to historical propositions, and though he uses the language at times of being “accounted righteous before God” [119], the distinction between regeneration and justification has not been solidified, and the distinction between being made righteous and being declared righteous still is murky.

In 1534, preaching on the second Sunday after Trinity, Luther reflected on the words of Jesus that one must eat His flesh to have eternal life. “In Christ there is pure righteousness and no sin,” Luther reminded his people; “sin has no dominion over him.” On that basis, “Whoever, therefore, possesses Christ and eats of this food, which is pure righteousness and undefiled by sin, is by his eating also righteous.” No longer can he be accused by sin, no longer does God’s wrath abide on him, because Christ, who is “pure righteousness” is his food. If we truly eat Christ, therefore, that is, “hold firmly to the word of the gospel,” sin’s accusations can ultimately accomplish nothing, “for Christ, our food, is greater than our sin. By the same token, our righteousness is not ours (even though it becomes ours through faith) but Christ’s” [Klug, Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 6:245].

In his Disputation Concerning Justification of 1536, Luther had seen with greater clarity the relation between our proper righteousness generated internally by the grace of regeneration, and the perfect alien righteousness of Christ’s perfect obedience declared to be ours by the grace of imputation. On the one hand, “a man who is justified is not yet a righteous man, but is in the very movement or journey toward righteousness.” So, the one who is “justified is still a sinner; and yet he is considered fully and perfectly righteous by God who pardons and is merciful.” The relation of the one righteousness to the other finds coherence in the righteousness of Christ, “since it is without defect and serves us like an umbrella against the heat of God’s wrath, [and] does not allow our beginning righteousness to be condemned.” So it is that works do not produce our own righteousness but faith (“which is poured into us from hearing about Christ by the Holy Spirit”) confesses that we are justified, that is, “considered righteous on account of Christ.” Luther had gained clarity, but about twenty years of oscillating development had sown seeds of doctrinal ambivalence in the broad “Lutheran” community.

These sometimes murky relations between regeneration and imputation brought about controversy which resulted, forty years later in the Formula of Concord (1576). Its composers recognized that language had been used in a variety, and sometimes confusing, ways in the earliest days of reform and correction. Their attempt was to explain the variety of meanings in single terms, consolidate and streamline the doctrine, and to distinguish between doctrines so that no confusion of substance would remain in the pure evangelical expression of the gospel. About righteousness gained through faith they said, “that a poor sinner is justified before God … without any merit or worthiness on our part, and without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, by sheer grace, solely through the merit of the total obedience, the bitter passion, the death, and the resurrection of Christ our Lord, whose obedience is reckoned to us as righteousness” [The Book of Concord, trans. & ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 541]. Further along in the discussion, they gave an even more distinct and detailed clarification: “Therefore, his obedience consists not only in his suffering and dying, but also in his spontaneous subjection to the law in our stead and his keeping of the law in so perfect a fashion that, reckoning it to us as righteousness, God forgives us our sins, accounts us holy and righteous, and saves us forever on account of this entire obedience which, by doing and suffering, in life and in death, Christ rendered for us to his heavenly Father” [541].

For further clarification, they dealt with the concepts of conversion, regeneration, and renewal in their relation to justification. They introduced the discussion with this explanation: “Since the word ‘regeneration’ is sometimes used in place of ‘justification,’ it is necessary to explain the term strictly so that the renewal which follows justification by faith will not be confused with justification and so that in their strict senses the two will be differentiated from one another” [542].

A part of the clarifying explanation concerned the relation of sanctification in light of indwelling sin to justification in light of Christ’s perfect obedience: “But because the inchoate renewal remains imperfect in this life and because sin still dwells in the flesh even in the case of the regenerated, the righteousness of faith before God consists solely in the gracious reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to us, without the addition of our works, so that our sins are forgiven and covered up and are not reckoned to our account” [543]. Just for good measure, in another statement of distinction, the Formula stated:

Here, too, if the article of justification is to remain pure, we must give especially diligent heed that we do not mingle or insert that which precedes faith or follows faith into the article of justification, as if it were a necessary or component part of this article, since we cannot talk in one and the same way about conversion and about justification. For not everything that belongs to conversion is simultaneously also a part of justification. The only essential and necessary elements of justification are the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and faith which accepts these in the promise of the Gospel, whereby the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to us and by which we obtain the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, adoption, and the inheritance of eternal life [543].

Forty years before the Formula of Concord, five years after the Apology for the Augsburg Confession, and in the same year as Luther’s Disputation Concerning Justification, John Calvin (1509–1564) published his first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the first chapter, a discussion of the Law, Calvin inserted his explanation of justification. After showing how present day Roman Catholicism, based on the doctrinal reasoning of the scholastic theologians, had grievously misunderstood and perverted the intention of the moral law, Calvin concluded, that because of our sin and corruption and our consequent unrighteousness and inability to keep the law, “the promises also that are offered us in the law are all ineffectual and void” [33]. At this point we must realize that eternal life must come now, not by personal works of righteousness which are morally impossible, but by salvation. That salvation “consists in God’s mercy alone,” not in any worth, works, or merit of ours. In some manner we must be freed from the law’s curse. Here we find the infinite benefit of Christ in that we put on “Christ’s righteousness … as our own, and surely God accepts it as ours, reckoning us holy, pure, and innocent” [34]. Although God chooses us unto holiness and will teach us to hate all the filth of the flesh, still we stand in need of forgiveness each moment. Even our best works done under the guidance and in the energy of faith cannot render us acceptable and pleasing to God. “But 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.” This righteousness, Calvin continued “is brought to us and imputed to us, just as if it were ours.” On the other hand, “none of the filth or uncleanness of our imperfection is imputed to us, but is covered over by that purity and perfection of Christ as if it were buried that it may not come into God’s judgment.”

We see therefore, that the way to reformation is one of progress and openness to further light, further clarification, further precision, further insight from Scripture. Luther began with contrasting biblical repentance with the Roman Catholic system of indulgences. The battle that ensued drove him to clarify biblical authority, highlight the centrality of Christ, argue for faith as fundamental to justification, not works of congruent or condign merit. The declaration of being just was not, however, devoid of merit but depended on it entirely; the merit granted us came from the perfect human obedience of Jesus Christ. Luther reestablished calling as a reality in every Christian’s life, he rescued the rightness and goodness of marriage for all. From our standpoint he fell short on issues of church and state, his attitude toward certain segments of society, and the theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The wonder is, not that he fell short in some ways, or seemed boisterous, brutal, unrefined, and given to eruptions of outrage, but that he corrected so much that had the pedigree of many centuries and powerful centers of authority.

Not only as a clever and earnest critic, but as a true builder, Luther left succeeding generations in his debt. Zwingli, Calvin, Bullinger, Beza, Bucer, Cranmer, though differing on certain points in important ways and establishing their own spheres of original contribution, nevertheless found a starting point in Luther. Philip Jacob Spener was greatly moved by Luther’s printed sermons, found inspiration for his advocacy of genuine piety as the true test of Christian faith, set in motion standards of piety that greatly influenced the leading preachers of the great evangelical awakening in England and America in the 18th century. Luther, thus, refined through other developing points of insight, stood behind all the subsequent awakenings.

One hundred years after his death, Protestant theology had been discussed and debated in many venues and had become the dominant expression of Christianity in several countries. England had been among the most fertile grounds for doctrinal advance and maturity. In 1646, The Westminster Confession of Faith was written. This confession, arising from vigorous theological debates and constructive discussion among those looking for further reformation of the church in England, presented one of the most clear, articulate, well synthesized confessions emerging from the development of Protestant theology. Its article on justification, given its relative brevity, expresses forcefully every idea essential to the biblical teaching.

This issue of the Founders Journal is devoted to an exposition of this sink-or-swim doctrine. From Benjamin Keach himself, one of the signatories of the 1689 presentation of the Second London Confession, we have printed an article that summarized his argument from a small book The True Marrow of Justification, reprinted by Solid Ground Christian Books. For Keach, this doctrine held a place of special importance. Not only was the contest with Roman Catholicism still energetically pursued by Protestant and Catholic alike, he found within church of England and the very Puritan movement itself just cause for concern. Aaron Matherly has given us a sensitively constructed exposition of paragraph one of this chapter bringing in both Luther and Keach to show the centrality of this article in the confession as a mature expression of the key to Protestant exposition. Roger Duke, reiterating the pivotal emphases of paragraph one, leads us to consider the importance of paragraphs 2 and 6 both for doctrinal and biblical symmetry. The editor has written the exposition of paragraph 3.

No lack of importance, but lack of space, time, and energy have resulted in an omission of any separate exposition of paragraphs 4 and 5. I will only remark that these important issues help define the precise place of justification in the ordo salutis and preserve our understanding of its nature.

In short, paragraph 4 rejects both eternal justification and “cross-consummated” [my term] justification. Justification is not to be identified either with the decree to justify, or the punctiliar historical event that determines the material aspects of justification. As a Trinitarian reality, justification depends not only on the decree of the Father, the obedience of the Son, but also on the Spirit’s fitting of the sinner’s mind and heart for the exhibition of faith. The soul commitment of the sinner to trust only in Christ because of His righteousness, death, and resurrection, through the Spirit’s work of giving union with Christ, consummates the transaction of justification. Thus, justification is determined by decree, morally assured by full righteousness and satisfaction, and experientially granted. So finally, the triune God grants the sinner the status of a justified person before the judgment bar of God: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4–7 ESV). God the Father is our Savior, God the Son is our Savior, God the Holy Spirit is our Savior with the partitive aspects of each person of the Trinity constituting one glorious outflow of divine grace preparing, constituting, and effecting or justification unto life.

Paragraph 5 emphasizes the irreversible status of justification as remedying our susceptibility to condemnation for sin and bestowing the righteousness that merits eternal life. At the same time it shows that indwelling sin and corruption will continue to be dealt with by God. He solves the sin problem, not only through removing condemnation, but through removing, step-by-step according to the existential manifestation of it, our corruption. “If they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips” (Psalm 89:31–34).

As we consider the great feast that is overflowing in the righteousness of Christ let us take Luther’s advice and not get caught up in “beetles, grubs, and vermin.” Instead we must recognize that “in Christ there is pure joy, yes, everlasting joy; he is no longer sorrowful or fainthearted; he no longer sweats drops of blood as he did in the Garden; but in him there is true joy and gladness. And the same Christ, in whom comfort and joy are to be found, has become our food, served up in the Word and eaten by faith. For this reason, if we are forsaken, cast down, oppressed, and assailed, we should hasten to Christ, and there revive and strengthen ourselves.”

—Tom J. Nettles

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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