Celebrating the Protestant Reformation by Highlighting the Doctrine of Justification

On October 31, 1517, a German monk, named Martin Luther, posted a document for academic debate on what was effectively the local bulletin board, the castle-church door. Luther probably wanted a discussion and debate with other professors and theologians over a matter of theological concern.

Luther was only 33 years old at the time, but he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Doctor of Theology, and a professor at the university in Wittenberg. He saw himself, in that moment, as a faithful servant of the Church of Rome. But Luther had heard about a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who was selling indulgences to people all over the Roman empire.

Indulgences, which are still part of Roman Catholic teaching and practice today, [1] are official letters from the Roman Church which absolve a person of some or all of their sin based a faith-infused act of some kind. Tetzel’s indulgences, authorized by the Roman Pope, were effectively absolution for sins for a financial donation. Tetzel’s jingle was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, Luther knew more theology than many, and he believed that indulgences were antithetical to any biblical understanding of repentance or forgiveness. So, Luther wrote 95 statements of dispute against indulgences – the document we know today as “Luther’s 95 Theses.”[2]

Some of his students translated Luther’s original document from Latin to German, and they also used the newly invented printing press to make lots of copies. Before Luther knew it, he had become the spearhead and voice of many discontents with Rome. In response, Luther also became the target of Rome’s fury, and he was the kind of man who usually added fuel to the fire.

On April 17, 1521 (not quite 4 years after he had nailed the 95 theses to the church door and probably about 2 years after he had trusted in Christ alone as Savior[3]), Luther was standing in a room with the Roman Emperor – Charles V – and several high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Copies of Luther’s books and tracts were piled on a desk in front of him and the full authority of the church and of the state was bearing down on him. The one question Rome asked was, “Will you recant (or retract and apologize)?”

Luther was forced to make a brief response. So, he said,

“I am bound by the Scriptures… and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[4]

Everyone, including Luther, expected that he would be burned at the stake. But in God’s providence, Luther was spared a martyr’s death. He lived another 3 decades, in which he translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to German, he wrote many more books and tracts, and he pastored and taught with a keen focus on the cross and the justifying work of Jesus Christ.

In one sense, Luther was a giant among the reformers. His voice echoed throughout the western world, and it continues to do so today. My own church still sings songs Luther wrote, and I still quote him in my sermons and teaching. But, in another sense, Luther was just one reformer among many.

Zwingli and Bullinger were notable reformers in Switzerland, and, in England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley both lived and died for their Protestantism. These two, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake together in Oxford, England on October 15, 1555. As the wood was being stacked around their legs, Latimer (now famously) said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” And so, they did. The flame consumed them, but the gospel-fire spread wildly.

John Calvin was a French reformer who spent most of his time writing and preaching in Geneva. Calvin was nearly the opposite of Luther, a studious introvert and not the bombastic life-of-the-party. Calvin spent most of his life suffering from some chronic illness or another, but Calvin also had a precise mind and a profound ability to speak and write with clarity.

Every Christian is indebted to Calvin for his incredible work of systematic theology, a multi-volume set we know today as “Calvin’s Institutes.” He first published the text in 1536 as a “Basic instruction in the Christian Religion.” It was 6 chapters and about 200 pages long by today’s formatting. Calvin published the final version of that work in 1559, which has 80 chapters and about 1,600 pages, but Calvin still called it a “Basic instruction…”

Calvin’s preaching, which is available today in manuscript form, and his commentaries are both quality sources of deep intellectual study as well as practical/pastoral instruction. And, I believe, the Christian who throws Calvin out because of a distorted view of some truncated version of Calvin’s doctrine will inevitably suffer loss for it.

Each of these reformers, and many others like them, protested the common teaching and practice of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. But what was it exactly that they were protesting? And should Protestants still protest today?

On the one hand, Protestants and Roman Catholics, both then and now, have a great deal in common. We believe the same things about God as trinity, about Jesus as both God and man, and about the value of human life, which is grounded in the fact that all humans were-and-are created in the image of God.

But, on the other hand, Evangelical Protestants (including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and even non-denominationalists) have been and continue to be at odds with Rome on some very important issues. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, we can see at least two major disagreements, which still remain today: 

One, on the doctrine of justification… “How are guilty sinners justified before God?” And two, on the place of ultimate authority… “Who has the authority to answer this question, or any other on faith and practice, definitively?”

In this essay, I will (like a good Protestant) argue from the position that the Bible is our highest authority. But the authority of Scripture is not my main focus here, so I will just have to assume that point for now. For the interested reader, I’ve written on that subject elsewhere.[5]

Primarily, I’ll focus here on the question of how sinners can be justified. And I’ll argue that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. I will make my case from the Bible and then I’ll urge us to believe this gospel, as opposed to any other, by clarifying the biblical position in contrast to others – both old and new.

If you’re reading this essay with your Bible beside you, then turn now to Romans 3, and let’s try to understand the biblical answer to our desperate question: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?”

THESIS

God justifies sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, and unjustified sinners should expect God’s justice; therefore, let us receive God’s righteousness by faith.

1.  GOD JUSTIFIES SINNERS THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST

Romans 3:9-28 is a small portion of an entire letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome during the first century. Though the “Roman Catholic Church” would grow to mean something far different in time, the “church in Rome” then was simply the united body of Christian believers who lived in Rome.

Paul’s letter to these Christians was and is a masterful treatise on the gospel. As a matter of fact, this letter was one of the books of the Bible which Martin Luther taught through at the seminary in Wittenberg. But he didn’t always enjoy the book of Romans as a marvelous display of God’s grace and love.

Luther initially had some trouble with chapter 1, verse 17, which says, “In it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed…” Luther said of this verse,

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle [or letter] to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice [or righteousness] of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing [sinners]… My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my [good work] would [satisfy] him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”[6]

Luther understood that sinners are guilty before God, and Luther knew God’s righteousness demands justice. And that’s where the gospel message begins for all of us… with bad news, and not good.

In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he had begun his description of the gospel by talking about the unrighteous foolishness of all sinners, who naturally reject God’s truth and choose lies and sin instead (Romans 1:18-32). The Jewish Christians might have been tempted to think that they were better off than everyone else, since they had received God’s special revelation of His law… or, as Paul calls it in chapter 3, verse 2, “the oracles of God.”

Remember, up until that point in human history, God had only revealed His law to one people-group – the descendants of Abraham. But that revelation was not sufficient to solve the problem of sin for anyone – Jew or Gentile. And that’s where I’ll pick it up in chapter 3, verse 9.

Paul asked, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And his answer was, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” The Scripture says, everyone is “under” sin… both those who know God’s law and those who haven’t received any special revelation of it. But, what does it mean to be “under” sin? 

Well, verses 10-18 describe it for us. Drawing from multiple Old Testament passages, Paul lays out a diagnosis of natural humanity – that is fallen, unregenerate, and unbelieving humanity.

Romans 3:10-18 says, “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, noteven one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is terrible news! The Bible tells us clearly that no human being is naturally “righteous” (v10), no one “seeks for God” (v11), no one “does good” (v12), and no one has any “fear of God” (v18). Friend, this is a diagnosis of you and me. Neither of us naturally seeks for God; neither of us naturally does what is right; and neither of us naturally has any genuine fear or reverence for God.

Why in the world, then, should God be favorable toward us?!

The short and honest answer is, He should not be! 

But it gets worse. Even the benefit of God’s law is no help to sinners like us. Look at verse 19 and following. The Bible says, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).

What does the Bible say God’s law does to us when it shows up in our lives? It “stops” our “mouths” and it shows us our “accountability” or “liability” or “guilt” before God. The law is no help to us, not because the law is bad, but because we are.

Do you feel the weight of what Luther was wrestling with when he thought the gospel revealed only “the justice” or the “wrath” of God? What does God’s “righteousness” or “justice” mean for sinners like us?

If God’s gospel only reveals the justice by which God judges sinners, then the gospel mocks us in our despair and misery by giving us wretched news. It only condemns us more profoundly.

But Luther kept on reading and he kept on thinking this through. He said,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is thatrighteousness by which… through grace and sheer mercy… God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise…”[7]

What did Luther understand that brought such a change? I think he understood the heart of the gospel, which we find in Romans 3, verses 21-26. The Bible says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Friend, we see here the beginning of the good news. There is a sense in which God gives righteousness, through Jesus Christ, to those who believe. But how can this be? How can God, who is righteous and just, grant or give righteousness to dirty rotten sinners like us?

Look at the end of verse 22. It says, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Friend, here we come right to the blazing core of the Christian gospel. The question we’re after is: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” Or, to put it the other way around, “How can God’s justice against sinners be satisfied without punishing sinners?”

The answer we see in Romans 3:22-25 is that God satisfied His own wrath by “putting forward” His own Son (Jesus Christ) as a “propitiation” …or as J. I. Packer put it, Jesus was put forward as a “wrath-quencher.”[8]

I don’t think it’s important that you be able to pronounce the word (propitiation), but your soul depends on you being able to understand the meaning of it. Propitiation is the act of appeasing or satisfying someone. In this case, the furious party is God, and the object of His wrath is the sinner (disobedient people like us). And the propitiating act was the work of Christ upon the cross.

We know Jesus offered propitiation at the cross because it was “by his blood” (v25). And we know that it was this substitutionary sacrifice that brought about “justification” because“justification” is what this whole passage is about. Those sinners who are condemned by their sin in verse 23 are “justified” by God’s grace “through” Christ’s “propitiatory” death in verses 24-25. And verse 26 continues the same thought. “It,” i.e. the propitiating work of Christ, “was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Only in the wrath-quenching death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for all those who repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust in Him), can God be both the just God who judges sin and the justifying God who saves or justifies sinners.

Only in the person and work of Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness displayed, both in the punishment of some sinners and in the reward of righteousness, which God gives to other sinners through Jesus Christ.

But is this reward of righteousness something that any sinner earns or deserves? NO! It is a “gift” that comes to sinners by or because of God’s “grace” (v24). And, now, Paul’s question in verse 27 is appropriate: “Then what becomes of our boasting?” And what does he say? “It is excluded. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”

You bet it’s excluded! What boasting can you do if all you contribute to your justification before God is your sin?! How can you boast if all you’ve done is passively put your faith in God’s gracious gift?!

God accomplished it all! God effectively, actually, and irrevocably saves sinners!

God alone and sovereignly makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross. This is why our hearts may rejoice as we sing: 

How deep the Father’s love for us… How vast beyond all measure…                    

That He should give His only Son… To make a wretch His treasure, 

Why should I gain from His reward… I cannot give an answer…                                  

But this I know with all my heart… His wounds have paid my ransom.

But what does this doctrine of justification by faith or trust in what God has done in Jesus mean for those sinners who do not trust in or have faith in Jesus?

2.  UNJUSTIFIED SINNERS SHOULD EXPECT GOD’S JUSTICE

This will be a relatively short point, but it’s one worth making. And it will probably be the second-most offensive point I’ll make in this essay.

If you look to verses 25-26 of our passage, you’ll read an interesting couple of lines. The Scripture says, “This [and This is referring to Christ’s propitiating work on the cross] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It [i.e. Jesus’ propitiation, His sacrificial death] was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time…”

Friend, the Bible never asks, “How could a loving God send someone to hell?” The Bible, unlike self-centered rebels like us, is far more interested in God’s glory than it is in man’s comfort or in our foolish presumptions about fairness.

In verses 25 and 26, the Bible is telling us that God’s own righteousness might have been in question if He hadn’t displayed His wrath in the work of Jesus Christ. The underlying question here is: If God is a perfect judge who always delivers impartial justice, then where is it?! Sinners seem to be walking around freely right now, and God has even promised to let some sinners escape His justice!

Ah, the Bible says, God hasn’t let His waves of justice roll just yet, but there is no question that God will pour out His wrath on all sinners everywhere. We know this because we can see God’s commitment to justice in the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you think God will spare any of us if He did not spare His own Son?  

Friend, do not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience!

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

You should turn away from your sin and cling tightly to Jesus. You should plead with God to blot out your transgressions with the blood of His own Son, so that you may be spared from God’s unrelenting wrath, which is surely coming.

God will show no pity in the day of judgment. Look what He has done to His beloved Son in order to save those sinners who are recipients of His grace!

The Bible says that if you do not repent and cling to Jesus then you are “storing up wrath for yourself” which will be poured out “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Unbelieving and unrepentant sinners should expect nothing but God’s justice.

3.  GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECEIVED BY FAITH ALONE

With this point, which will probably be the most offensive one to some readers, I’m going to contrast the biblical gospel with other versions of the gospel, which are not really any gospel at all. My purpose here is not to be divisive or mean just for the sake of meanness. But, rather, my purpose is to hold up the true gospel, right next to some other ideas that try to pass themselves off as the gospel, so that we will know better how to tell the difference. 

Remember our primary question. We’re asking, “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” I’ve answered this question already by pointing us to Romans 3, and by arguing from the Bible that God makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross.

But how does any sinner receive this gracious gift of righteousness? In real time and in the experience of our real lives, how do we move from being an object of God’s wrath to being an object of His grace and mercy? 

Well, from God’s perspective, the matter is already settled. From before the foundation of the world, He has loved and chosen a people for His name’s sake. And the Father sent the Son into the world in order to die as the substitute for those He came to save (or to justify). And God’s Spirit perfectly applies the work of Christ to all those the Father has loved and chosen.[9]

Praise God for such a marvelous salvation! He has decided it. He has planned it. And He will complete it perfectly… all the way through to the end!

But, from our perspective, the matter is still unfolding. We don’t come into this world knowing and believing the gospel of Christ. We are not naturally loving and serving our good King. Rather, we begin as guilty and rebellious sinners.

How, then, do sinners like us trade our unrighteousness for the righteousness of God in Christ? Or, to put it another way, what must we do to be saved (or justified) before God?

It will probably be helpful if I add a little clarifying note with regard to the precise language I’m using when I say “justified.” The Bible speaks of “salvation” as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen.

The Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. But this is a way of using the same word to mean slightly different things.

What we really mean when we speak this way is: The Christian has been regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God. The Christian is being sanctified, renewed, and spiritually matured. And the Christian will be glorified, resurrected, and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

So, to speak of “justification” is to refer to a precise aspect of the overall work and experience of Christian salvation. But justification is a critical piece of the puzzle. In fact, Martin Luther said,

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[10]

Indeed, to get justification wrong is to lose the gospel altogether. To get justification wrong is to lose salvation and to lose even the whole Christian church. So, let’s dig just a little deeper into justification here.

In the 16th century, and still today, the Roman Catholic Church taught and teaches that a sinner actively participates in his or her justification by (at minimum) observing the sacraments of the Church, of which baptism is primary.[11] In other words, justification is not only an act of God, but it is also an activity in which the sinner plays an “instrumental” role, namely the sinner contributes to the “process” of his or her justification by performing religious duties.[12]

In fact, Rome has formally condemned anyone who teaches or believes the view that justification is something only God does through Christ, which is to be received only by simple faith.[13] Simply put, Rome has officially declared eternal damnation on anyone who teaches or believes the doctrine of justification as I have explained it above.

But Rome is not the only church to teach a gospel of justification by faith plus religious obedience. Historically consistent Churches of Christ teach the same. For example, Graceton Church of Christ (located near me) affirms that baptism is “an act which is essential to salvation.”[14]  Very much like official Roman Catholicism, Churches of Christ seem to mix together faith in the Lord Jesus with other religious activities which Christians are commanded to do as a result of their faith in Jesus.

But the Bible doesn’t teach justification by faith plus anything!

The Bible teaches us that God justifies by His grace through the work of Jesus Christ. Justification is not something we do. It’s not something we can do! We don’t contribute to our justification in any way. We are passive recipients of God’s gracious and effective work, which provides perfect righteousness for us.

This is marvelous good news for sinners like us, because it means that we have a truly effective savior. Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible for sinners like us; He truly and actually died in our place. And in so doing, He quenched God’s wrath against us and made us righteous in God’s sight. We must simply believe or trust that this is true.

At 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther was dying, and his friend asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther simply responded, “Yes.”

May God help us too, to have no guilt in life and no fear in death. May God help us all to stand in the love, in the sacrifice, and in the power of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Luther, Martin. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-boc.html

Packer, J. I., and Dever, Mark. In My Place Condemned He Stood. Crossway, 2007.

Rafferty, Oliver. P. Catholic Views of Justification. In P. R. Eddy, J. K. Beilby, & S. E. Enderlein (Eds.),Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group, First Image Books edition, 1995.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker Books, 1995.

Waterworth, J. Ed. and trans. The Council of Trent. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. London: Dolman, 1848. Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995.

ENDNOTES


[1] See the official Vatican authorization of indulgences as recently as March 20 of 2020. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/20/pope-francis-authorizes-plenary-indulgences-and-general-absolution-coronavirus

[2] See Luther’s 95 theses: https://marcminter.com/2017/03/30/martin-luthers-95-theses/  

[3] See this article on Luther’s conversion: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/story-martin-luthers-conversion/

[4] Quote from: Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[5] Here’s a popular level article I wrote on the subject: https://marcminter.com/2017/05/10/christians-dont-need-the-bible/ and here’s a more academic article on the same: https://marcminter.com/2018/11/01/sufficiency-of-scripture/

[6] Sproul, 56-57.

[7] Sproul, 57.

[8] Packer, 23.

[9] See all of this laid out in Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:27-39; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; and elsewhere.

[10] Sproul, 67.

[11] Rafferty, 280. See also chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, which says, “Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only- begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just…”

[12] Rafferty, 278-280.

[13] See Waterworth, session 6, especially canons 9, 12, 24, and 30.

[14] See full content at http://www.churches-of-christ.net/tracts/job041u.htm

Should Protestants Still Protest?

This year marks the 500th anniversary since that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed a document, intended to initiate a collegiate theological discussion, to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Germany. Unintentionally (it seems), Luther struck the match that ignited a powder keg.

Germany, Switzerland, England, Scottland, and several other lands experienced an upheaval of the established religious system of the day (Roman Catholicism); and there were many and various contributors. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and many others played their respective and overlapping parts in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Today, many are asking if the Protestant Reformation is over, and others seem to think it was a vastly overblown misunderstanding to begin with. Should Protestants still protest? Are Protestants who do still protest revealing themselves as merely irreconcilable curmudgeons?

I think it is quite helpful to answer questions like these by first understanding the disagreement. One can hardly seek to reconcile two parties without knowing what has divided them thus far. So, let’s go back to the place where the disagreement was codified.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many people believed that some reformation within Christendom was necessary. When the Reformation became undeniable, both Roman Catholics and Protestants still agreed that change was needed, but each side differed considerably on what that reform should look like. The Roman Catholic Church officially responded to their protesting brethren through the forum of a Church Council.

The Council of Trent gathered in Trento and Bologna, Italy, over 18 years (1545-1563). Sometimes infrequent and sometimes intensive, these meetings included discussion and debate on many topics of Roman Catholic theology. Bishops and theologians considered dogma, doctrine, and tradition regarding authority, sacraments, purgatory, indulgences, and much more. Finally, the Council of Trent published its decrees (statements of affirmation) and canons (statements of judgment) in 1564, and these were confirmed by Pope Pius IV.

Specifically addressing some Protestant theological assertions, the Council of Trent clearly presented an opposing position. While there are certainly still many things about which Roman Catholics and Protestants agree (God as Trinity, Jesus as Savior, and grace as necessary), there is a stark contrast on vital matters.

Few questions are as important as, “How is a sinner justified before God?” Rome answered the question by saying (among other things) that the sinner must participate in his/her justification by sacraments and other good works.

The Council of Trent states that baptism is the ‘instrumental cause,’ or the means by which justification is obtained.

“The instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befell any man…”

The Council of Trent states that justification can and should be increased through the efforts of obedience on the part of the sinner.

“Having, therefore, been thus justified… they [those who are justified], through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in the justice received through the grace of Christ, and are still more justified…”

The Council of Trent states that faith alone cannot and will not justify any sinner.

“No one ought to flatter himself upon faith alone, deeming that by faith alone he is made an heir, and will obtain the inheritance [the inheritance of salvation or eternal life in Christ Jesus].”

The Council of Trent not only clarified the Roman Catholic teaching on important matters, it also unequivocally named what is at stake. The strong denials below include the phrase, “let him be anathema,” which is a superlative condemnation of anyone who disagrees with the statement. With intentional language, the Roman Catholic Church condemned all protesters.

The following are some of the Roman Catholic canons on the subject of justification.

Canon 11: If any one shall say, that men are justified by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ… or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

Canon 12: If any one shall say, that justifying faith is naught else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or that it is this confidence alone by which we are justified; let him be anathema.

Canon 24: If any one shall say, that the justice received is not preserved, and also increased in the sight of God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

The message could not be clearer: believing that justification comes by way of Christ’s righteousness and not by any work or effort on the part of the sinner is a justification condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who believes in justification by faith alone in Christ alone is thus condemned or “anathematized.”

In two major Protestant catechisms, the question of justification is asked and answered. The Westminster Shorter catechism (following the Westminster Confession of 1647) and the Baptist catechism (following the Second London Confession of 1689) both provide an identicle answer (dependent upon translation).

“What is justification?”

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

With the same precision and clarity as the Roman Catholics, Protestants articulated their own understanding of justification, and one cannot miss the antithesis. What Rome said was condemnable, Protestants wholeheartedly affirm. What Rome stated as doctrine, Protestants denied outright.

The only question we are left with now is, Should Protestants still protest?

Well, does Rome still affirm the decrees and canons published from the Council of Trent?

Yes, the current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, affirms, and cites the Council of Trent throughout (including the section on Justification, pg. 535-537). Furthermore, reversing the official condemnation of “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” would require a new and clear council statement (Vatican I and Vatican II (subsequent councils) reaffirmed the Council of Trent).

Do Evangelical Protestants still affirm the doctrine of justification as articulated in the two catechisms cited above?

Yes, the Westminster Confession is still the authoritative doctrinal body of teaching (under the authority of Scripture) for Presbyterians. Yes, though Baptists are generally a less creedal bunch, this denomination is marked by a fierce affirmation of justification by personal faith alone – apart from any good work – in Christ alone.

So, Should Protestants still protest?

What else can any thinking person expect from a Protestant? The Roman Catholic who seeks to reconcile with Protestants either denies or betrays his/her own ignorance of Rome’s doctrine and dogma. The Protestant who seeks to reconcile with Rome is by definition no longer a Protestant – since he/she has stopped protesting.

Protestants must not only protest, but Protestants must know what and why we are protesting. The very Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and this is no time to capitulate.

 

*If you enjoyed this article, then you will probably also like others in this category, “Reformation Heroes.”

 

Justification: Not Only for Theologians

How are rebellious, disobedient humans able to avoid the wrath of the God they have so consistently defied throughout their lives? Now that is a good question! Throughout history, Christians have phrased the question like this: How is a sinner justified before God? Justification is a theological and biblical word, but it is also very practical and universal in its applications.

Justification is the doctrine upon which every Christian relies. It is the only way that sinners may live in the presence of the holy God; they must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and free from the stain of sin. Quoting the Westminster Confession, Hodge relays the doctrine of justification as follows:

“The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”[1]

Justification is at the core of describing how God’s plan of redemption is effective for the salvation sinners. The word itself conjures up legal connotations, such as crime, law, judge, penalty and judicial declaration. There are numerous works, including the several used as resources in this article, which beautifully and profoundly extract the keenest observations from the biblical doctrine of Justification. The purpose of this work is to concisely communicate the wonderful work of Christ, both positive and negative, in justifying sinners by providing righteousness, expiation, and propitiation.

The Apostle Paul expressively speaks of the Gospel in Romans 3:21-26 when he says,

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This phrase is a commonly memorized verse for anyone who has attempted to learn the Romans Road in order to evangelize. The purpose of reciting this text is to point out the reality of universal guilt. Every human sins. The implication is that sin is not only a horizontal offense, but vertical too. Human sin is against self, others and the Creator who made and governs humanity. Those who sin are guilty before God and under the penalty of sin, namely death.

Elsewhere in the same portion of Scripture, the stark pronouncement is declared, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death here refers, not only in the physical sense of human mortality, but also to the idea that God will distribute His ultimate judgment of wrath on all who have rebelled in sin against His righteousness. God has established the law, all humans have disobeyed it and the perfectly just Judge is obligated to deliver justice. This bleak situation is the common bond of all people. Sin yields death and judgment, everyone has sinned, and God’s righteousness demands that all sinners endure the due penalty.

In an essay on justification, the purpose of preliminarily establishing the sinner’s guilt and God’s immanent wrath is two-fold. First, the gospel is good news because of the converse situation in which the unregenerate person presently finds him or herself. Hodge explains that justification rests “on the principle that God is immutably just, i. e;, that his moral excellence, in the case of sin, demands punishment.”[2]

Secondly, the redeeming work of Christ is a wonder without comparison because of the overwhelming holiness and justice of God.  Sinners may not realize and some may even choose not to acknowledge that they are hanging over a perilous pit of destruction.  God’s holy justice and consuming wrath is pointed at them every moment and God holds it back each second for reasons only known to Him. Dr. Sproul notes, “The Greek word Paul uses for ‘wrath’ is orgai. [Ro 3:18] The English word that derives from orgai is orgy… God’s anger is one of passion with paroxysms of rage and fury.”[3]

God’s wrath toward sinners is no jovial or moderate thing. The gratitude felt by any sinner’s escape of such fury is beyond expression.

What reason would any sinner have for embracing a hopeful attitude, believing some escape may be found? The message of good news concerning the person and work of Christ appears all the more stunning in front of this abominable backdrop. We who believe (i.e. trust in Christ) are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation” (Ro 6:24-25a).  Jesus has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners and suffered on behalf of all those who would trust in Him.

The suffering life and excruciating death of Jesus Christ would be note worthy if only for the sake of uniqueness, especially in light of His deity. However, the biblical description of purpose behind such a work is that of representation.  Jesus is the representative of sinners before the bar of God’s judgment.  He is the one who absorbs the full wrath of God, which all sinners deserve.

Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is the work of expiation and propitiation. Expiation, according to Sproul, carries the idea that Christ “removes our sin from us and takes it away.” So then one aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that He removes the sin of sinners; He makes sinners clean. Sproul describes expiation is a horizontal work, washing human sinners, and propitiation is a vertical work, “satisfying the justice of God for us.”[4] God’s justice demands that sinners endure the due penalty for sin, namely His unbridled wrath. God is no just judge if He merely pardons the sinner and withholds punishment. Justice must be delivered, because God is the one and only perfect Judge.

Therefore, the work of Christ includes enduring the wrath of God as a representative for sinners. Grudem explains that Christ’s passive obedience can be observed in several ways.[5] Jesus’ obedience was not passive in that He was inactive or unengaged during such a time, but passive in the sense that He was obedient to endure suffering that was inflicted upon Him. Christ’s suffering included the human suffering of mortal life, the physical pain of death by crucifixion, the psychological pain of bearing the sin of all those who would be recipients of His atoning work, the emotional pain of being abandoned by His friends, the unknown pain of mysterious abandonment by His Father, and finally the unimaginable pain of bearing the full wrath of God. Jesus was obedient in a life and death of suffering like no other human has ever or will ever endure.

This is one-half of the work, which Christ has accomplished, that elicits the expression that Paul makes of God, “He [is] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). This aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work on behalf of sinners may be considered the negative aspect. Negative, not because it is bad, quite the contrary; His work is incredibly good as He subtracts sin (expiation) from the sinner and places it on His own shoulders in order to bear the punishment thereof (propitiation).

The negative aspect of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners (the subtraction of sin from the sinner and the atonement of such before God) is astonishing even if unaccompanied, yet it alone does not fulfill the necessary conditions of God’s requirements imposed on corrupt humanity. One must be righteous in order to receive approval from the holy King of the universe and to enjoy restful communion with Him. Expiation and propitiation are tantamount to the taking away of the sinner’s debasement, but without a life of perfect obedience the sinner is still not righteous or worthy of the approval of the King.

As established above, in the passage cited, all humanity has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of perfection. The completed work of Christ is both the subtraction of sinful debauchery and the filthy stain of its vestige, as well as the addition of the perfect righteousness achieved in the life of obedience that Jesus lived as the incarnate God-man. Dr. Sproul comments, “Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but also had to live for our righteousness. If Jesus had only died for our sins, His sacrifice would have removed all of our guilt, but that would have left us merely sinless in the sight of God, not righteous.”[6] Calvin explains, “from the moment when [Jesus] assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”[7] Jesus was not only the representative of sinners in His sacrificial death; He was also their delegate in His impeccable life.

The Apostle Paul, elsewhere in the book of Romans, explains that Christ was the second “Adam” (Rom 5). The first Adam, Paul says, disobeyed as the representative of humanity and God’s declaration of guilt on the entire human race was the result. However, Christ is the second Adam who lives an obedient life before God and as a result the “many” are “made righteous” in the sight of God. It only takes a light consideration of the contrast here to begin to marvel at the incredible distinction between the two “Adams.” The first Adam was directly created by God and placed in a marvelous garden, which he was to enjoy along with his naked wife (Gen 1, 2). The ground and plant life thereon produced vegetation for food effortlessly. For some amount of time, there was absolutely no sin and Adam had immanent communion with God. On top of all this, there was only one rule to follow and even that was a negative rule rather than a positive one, Do not rather than You must Do. Avoiding this one error meant blessed, sinless communion with God in perfect contentment forever.

However, Jesus, the second Adam, had much different circumstances.  In fact, the pinnacle of Christ’s obedient life was His time of fasting in the desert (Matt 4). Jesus had been fasting for forty days and was now in solitude in the desert when He experienced His temptation from the devil. This was no lush garden and He had no full belly. Jesus was seemingly all alone. Incredibly, His response was obedience rather than rebellion, even in obviously desolate conditions. The second Adam was a human representative, like the first, but His representation was one of perfect righteousness. Sinners, then, may rely on Jesus’ righteous obedience, as they understand their own lack thereof.

Salvation is wholly a work of the Lord. God supplies all we need and satisfies all of His demands in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God declares sinners righteous and provides the means by which He may declare them so. During the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther’s day, the defining call was the phrase “Justification by faith alone,” sola fide.

Sproul says this phrase is “merely shorthand for ‘justification by the righteousness of Christ alone.’ His merit, and only his merit, is sufficient to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. It is precisely this merit that is given to us by faith. Christ is our righteousness. God clothes his filthy creatures with the coat of Christ’s righteousness.”[8]

This imagery of clothing is helpful for a more accurate understanding of the concept.  The sullied sinner who receives the blessed joy of eternal reward in the presence of God almighty does so, not based upon his or her renewed fervor to live well, but because he or she has been covered by the foreign righteousness of Another. Christ’s righteousness is alien to the sinner, but imputed (assigned or accredited) to him or her by God because of the work of Christ.

Every sinner who has been regenerated (born again, John 3:3) by the Holy Spirit rests all his or her confidence in escaping God’s judgment on the completed work of Christ. Unlike most other religions and philosophies, Christianity is a worldview based on the inability of humanity to fix anything and a total reliance on God to reconcile whom He will to Himself. God demonstrates His own graciousness in granting sinners the gift of redemption, which can only be found in Christ Jesus. It is not hard to notice the legal notions in J. I. Packer’s comments on the matter when he says,

“Whenever God fulfills his covenant commitment by acting to save his people, it is a gesture of ‘righteousness,’ that is, justice. When God justifies sinners through faith in Christ, he does so on the basis of justice done, that is, the punishment of our sins in the person of Christ our substitute; thus the form taken by his justifying mercy shows him to be utterly and totally just (Rom. 3:25-26), and our justification itself is shown to be judicially justified.”[9]

In summary, the whole of humanity is guilty before a righteous Judge. This Judge is like no other. He is omniscient and omnipotent. Added to these ominous capabilities is His attribute of aseity; that is, He is self-existent and will never cease to be. This dreadful combination to sinners means certain and unending punishment for their rebellion. There is no way of escape in them and no hope that the Judge will simply forget or become careless concerning their malfeasance. Holiness and righteousness is the requirement, but sinners are covered in the stinking filth of the opposite. In this miry and hopeless state, God does something most unexpected; He pronounces His declaration of righteousness upon sinners who are not. He does so without the slightest impugning of His own righteousness and this seems all the more conflicting. One may wonder, How can this be?

Indeed, it is a wonder. God declares the sinner righteous in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This is possible only because Christ is the provision of God for expiation, propitiation, and righteousness. The Apostle Paul describes God as the “Just” and the “Justifier.” God commands humans, “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Only because of the completed negative and positive work of Christ’s obedience can God and the sinner be thus.

[1] Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic theology : 481–482. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sproul, R. C. Romans. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009: 38.

[4] Ibid: 103.

[5] Grudem, Wayne A., and Jeff Purswell. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999: 251.

[6] Sproul, R. C. The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012: 71.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.

[8] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005: 67.

[9] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Do you have right relationship with God?

How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?

This question is of supreme importance, though it is not likely on the front of most people’s mind at the moment. There are numerous assumptions in such a question. Here are just some of them: (1) There is a God; (2) God is holy or morally pure; (3) humans are sinful or morally corrupt; (4) God is just; and (5) God is gracious. While many may not regularly consider this question, all people presume at least some of these assumptions. In fact, the Bible argues that all people everywhere are accountable to God precisely because all conscious people know the first four assumptions to be true (Romans 1:18-2:11).

Arguing for the statements here is not within to scope of this brief article, but if the first four assumptions are true, then the question above becomes exceedingly important. If God is pure and just, and humans are morally corrupt, then God must deliver proper justice for all immoral thoughts, words, and deeds. While this reality is unsettling, not everyone sees fit to answer the question the same.

Naturalistic & Humanistic Approach

Some argue for a Naturalistic perspective of the world, and these may deny one or more of the assumptions. “There is no God,” they might say. One Naturalist explained his perspective on the matter of ultimate reality by claiming that the purpose of life is to “stay alive.” If there is no transcendent reality, then I am inclined to agree with such sentiments. However, I find it not the least bit encouraging that all my best efforts to “stay alive” will be frustrated in the end. The life-to-death ratio remains 1-to-1; every living person dies at some point.

There are others who argue from a Humanistic view, and these may also deny at least one of the assumptions. They might claim, “Humans are inherently good, and self-actualization is the highest goal.” Each day is another opportunity to achieve a higher state of self-existence, and all humanity must do is choose the path of greater fulfillment and pleasure. This perspective, however, is simply in denial. Human history is a chronicle of corruption, scandal, and evil. There are bright lights in history to be sure, but by and large the map is covered with the blood and tears of men. One would be hard-pressed to argue for the inherent goodness of humanity in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A Justified Approach

Since these two worldviews do not seem to be adequate responses to the original question (How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?), let us now turn to a religious response. Most religious institutions would acknowledge at least a few of the assumptions listed above, but often we find either a denial of God’s justice or the addition of human goodness. It might be helpful to boil things down a bit and arrange religious jargon under a couple of simple headings.

In the end, there really are only two religious answers to the original question.

One, Justification by Works. Many religious people and/or institutions (church, synagogue, mosque, hall, philosophy, guru, etc.) may answer the question with a prescription. “You must do…” While the latter portion of this statement could go in multiple directions, from actions to thoughts and from places to postures, the beginning is always the same. If you want to enjoy right relationship with God (or others, or the universe, or simply with yourself), then you must do, say, and/or think according to a certain prescription. So, this type of thinking we might call “Justification by Works.”

The phrase “Justification by Works” helps us think in terms of what actually brings one into right relationship with God. How is a person “justified” or made worthy to enjoy the right relationship we are after? No matter how you phrase it, if your answer to the question includes something that must be accomplished in order to bring about the desired end, then it is “Justification by Works.” The biggest problem with Justification by Works is that it assumes a great deal more than is reasonable. It assumes that some kind of work (religious or otherwise) can somehow erase disobedience towards God. However, we do not think in such ways even in our own understanding of justice. Think about it: No criminal could think of getting away with murder simply because he promised to go to church; no thief would be relieved from penalty because she started acting with greater kindness; and no adulterer covers over his transgression by doing the dishes one night.

Even though we would not allow such thinking in our worldly experiences with justice, we often presume upon God’s justice in unthinkable ways. We might imagine that God will not punish our millions of sinful actions because we have attended church 10 times over the last 4 years. We might think that God will simply overlook our constant rebellion towards His commands because we got baptized during a church service. We may even think that God will not remember that we have utterly neglected to consider His standards for living just because we prayed several childish prayers at various times in our lives. This is foolish thinking, and we know it.

Justification by Works, then, seems to fall flat on its face when we really think about what we are believing. Therefore, it appears best to consider another option.

Two, Justification by Faith. Rather than a prescription (a list of things to do), the Bible reports a description of what has already been accomplished by another. Jesus (God the Son in human form) was born without moral corruption; He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s commands; and He was counted by God as the guilty sinner in His death. In other words, Jesus Christ was counted as though He was the one who was actually guilty of the disobedience of all those for whom He died. Then Jesus conquered death itself and demonstrated His power to justify sinners and bring them life.

In mortal life, Jesus lived perfectly obedient towards God. In death, Jesus took upon Himself the due penalty and fully exhausted God’s justice towards sinners. In resurrection, Jesus testified to His own power to bring Justification to all who trust in Him. Rather than Justification by Works, the Bible presents a Justification by Faith or Trust. The biblical option is best summarized (in my opinion) by question and answer number 60 of theHeidelberg Catechism.[1] Fortunately, the question in the catechism is nearly identical to the question we have posed here at the outset.

The question is asked,

“How are you brought into right relationship with God?”
And it is answered,
“Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; Even though my conscience accuses me, even though I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and I kept none of them. Even though I and am still inclined to all evil, God, only of sheer grace and without any addition of my works, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ!
God looks upon me as if I never had sin in me at all, nor committed any sin whatsoever!
Furthermore, God looks upon me as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me! All that I contribute towards my new standing before God is that I embrace such a marvelous benefit with a believing heart.”
May we embrace the benefit of right relationship with God by believing in the work of another. May we come to enjoy marvelous communion with our heavenly Father as we learn to trust all the more in the justifying person and work of Christ.

[1] See the full Heidelberg Catechism here: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/heidelberg-cat.html