One simple, biblical truth changed that monk's life—and ignited the Protestant Reformation. It was the realization that God's righteousness could become the sinner's righteousness—and that could happen through the means of faith alone.
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Martin Luther found the truth in the same verse he had stumbled over, Romans "Therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith " KJV, emphasis added. Luther had always seen "the righteousness of God" as an attribute of the sovereign Lord by which He judged sinners—not an attribute sinners could ever possess. He described the breakthrough that put an end to the theological dark ages:. Justification by faith was the great truth that dawned on Luther and dramatically altered the church.
Because Christians are justified by faith alone, their standing before God is not in any way related to personal merit. Good works and practical holiness do not provide the grounds for acceptance with God.
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God receives as righteous those who believe, not because of any good thing He sees in them—not even because of His own sanctifying work in their lives—but solely on the basis of Christ's righteousness, which is reckoned to their account. That is justification.
In its theological sense, justification is a forensic, or purely legal, term. It describes what God declares about the believer, not what He does to change the believer. In fact, justification effects no actual change whatsoever in the sinner's nature or character. Justification is a divine judicial edict. It changes our status only, but it carries ramifications that guarantee other changes will follow.
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Forensic decrees like this are fairly common in everyday life. When I was married, for example, Patricia and I stood before the minister my father and recited our vows. Near the end of the ceremony, my father declared, "By the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you man and wife. Whereas seconds before we had been an engaged couple, now we were married. Nothing inside us actually changed when those words were spoken.
But our status changed before God, the law, and our family and friends. The implications of that simple declaration have been lifelong and life-changing for which I am grateful. But when my father spoke those words, it was a legal declaration only. Similarly, when a jury foreman reads the verdict, the defendant is no longer "the accused. Nothing in his actual nature changes, but if he is found not guilty he will walk out of court a free person in the eyes of the law, fully justified.
In biblical terms, justification is a divine verdict of "not guilty—fully righteous. Whereas He formerly condemned, He now vindicates. Although the sinner once lived under God's wrath, as a believer he or she is now under God's blessing. Justification is more than simple pardon; pardon alone would still leave the sinner without merit before God. So when God justifies He imputes divine righteousness to the sinner Romans Christ's own infinite merit thus becomes the ground on which the believer stands before God Romans ; 1 Corinthians ; Philippians So justification elevates the believer to a realm of full acceptance and divine privilege in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, because of justification, believers not only are perfectly free from any charge of guilt Romans but also have the full merit of Christ reckoned to their personal account Romans Here are the forensic realities that flow out of justification:. Justification is distinct from sanctification because in justification God does not make the sinner righteous; He declares that person righteous Romans ; Galatians Notice how justification and sanctification are distinct from one another:. Those two must be distinguished but can never be separated.
What does justification by faith mean?
God does not justify whom He does not sanctify, and He does not sanctify whom He does not justify. Both are essential elements of salvation. Why differentiate between them at all? If justification and sanctification are so closely related that you can't have one without the other, why bother to define them differently? That question was the central issue between Rome and the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and it remains the main front in renewed attacks against justification. Roman Catholicism blends its doctrines of sanctification and justification.
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Catholic theology views justification as an infusion of grace that makes the sinner righteous. In Catholic theology, then, the ground of justification is something made good within the sinner—not the imputed righteousness of Christ. The Council of Trent, Rome's response to the Reformation, pronounced anathema on anyone who says "that the [sinner] is justified by faith alone—if this means that nothing else is required by way of cooperation in the acquisition of the grace of justification.
The difference between Rome and the Reformers is no example of theological hair-splitting.
Related Theological FAQ
The corruption of the doctrine of justification results in several other grievous theological errors. If sanctification is included in justification, the justification is a process, not an event. That makes justification progressive, not complete. Our standing before God is then based on subjective experience, not secured by an objective declaration.
Justification can therefore be experienced and then lost. Assurance of salvation in this life becomes practically impossible because security can't be guaranteed. The ground of justification ultimately is the sinner's own continuing present virtue, not Christ's perfect righteousness and His atoning work. What's so important about the doctrine of justification by faith alone? It is the doctrine upon which the confessing church stands or falls.
Without it there is no salvation, no sanctification, no glorification—nothing. You wouldn't know it to look at the state of Christianity today, but it really is that important. Help Grace to You bring important resources like this to people in your community and beyond, free of charge. Here at Grace to You Europe we take our data protection responsibilities very seriously and, as you would expect, have undertaken a significant programme of work to ensure that we are ready for this important legislative change.
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Registered User Guest. Rather than seeing his theological discovery as a single decisive event, we should view it more as a gradual process. Between and , Luther lectured on the Psalms and Romans. It is clear from these texts that he was beginning to think differently about how the individual sinner finds forgiveness from God. He retained some of the older traditional concepts alongside his radical new ideas. Only after some years of biblical study under the inspiration of the theology of Augustine did Luther arrive at a more fully formed distinctive doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Luther, however, came to the conviction that human effort is utterly unable to achieve this standard of righteousness unless God grants it graciously without regard to merit. But like a pebble in a pond, it took some time for the early theological insights to ripple throughout his whole theological system. In the early years of the Reformation that is, before , Luther did not make a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification.
At first, he considered justification both an event and a process. For the German Reformer, both are gifts from God, and both come to the Christian via faith. This changed after After that time, when he was much more inclined to stress the difference between justification and sanctification. This shift is first clearly manifested in his commentary on Galatians It seems quite clear that Melanchthon was the main impetus behind this reorientation. At first, Luther did not necessarily characterize justification in forensic categories.
His metaphors for justification tended to be of the marriage relationship or the medical process of healing. But Melanchthon seems to have inspired him to employ legal language. Within Lutheranism, the Formula of Concord of marks the final consolidation of this doctrinal development.
In the midst of this intellectual transition period, it is probably more historically accurate to speak of the parameters of a Protestant doctrine of justification, and within those parameters are considerable differences among early Protestant theologians. However, despite the diversity, there seems to have been an irreducible core of a distinctive Protestant doctrine of justification, centering on the imputed righteousness of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The crucial distinction between Roman Catholics and Protestants was that the latter saw the exclusive ground of justification as the imputed righteousness of Christ.
This was the one thing all Protestants held in common and the thing that distinguished them from Rome. With this central idea in place, Reformers variously configured other accompanying aspects of justification. In this minute video, Professor Frank James introduces you to the Reformation: how it started, how it unfolded, and what happened next.
Take a look:.