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New Horizons

Reformation in the Sixteenth Century

Alan D. Strange

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That launched the Protestant Reformation—a massive return to the Bible and its teachings in much of Europe. Luther called upon the church to respond in faith to the clarification of the gospel by accepting salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as taught by the Bible alone, all for the glory of God alone.

To be sure, in 1517 Luther did not publicly espouse the full-blown Protestant doctrine of justification. But soon thereafter he did make it clear that the doctrine of justification through faith alone, apart from works, was "the article upon which the church stands or falls."

One of Luther's followers was John Calvin, who became the greatest theologian of the Reformation. Calvin disagreed with Luther on some matters, but he still regarded Luther as his father in the faith. He regarded the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, as enunciated by Luther, as "the main hinge on which religion turns." Calvin gave an extensive treatment of the doctrine in his Institutes, book 3, chapter 11. There he defined terms, refuted Osiander (who believed that Christ's righteousness was infused into us, not imputed to us, in justification), and insisted that good works were not meritorious. He argued for the truth that sins are remitted only on the basis of Christ's righteousness. Calvin maintained that "he is justified who is reckoned not in the condition of a sinner, but of a righteous man."

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

How does a fallen son of Adam become righteous? Calvin said that a man "can meet and satisfy God's judgment" either through "the wholeness of his works" or through faith in Christ. But the first path is not open to sinners. Apart from faith, sinners cannot satisfy the law's demand for perfect righteousness: "Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God's sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man." In summary, said Calvin, "we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ's righteousness" (Institutes, 3.11.2).

The response to Luther's and Calvin's clear teaching on justification was varied. Some welcomed it as the good news that it was, and joyfully embraced it. The bishop of Rome and those who continued to yield to his pretended authority over the catholic church, however, would not accept the clear teaching of the Word of God on this matter. Sadly, the Roman church showed herself more interested in maintaining her own prerogatives than in yielding to the clear teaching of God's Word. She demanded that Luther submit to her authority.

Some maintain that, by refusing to submit to Rome's demands, Martin Luther split the church. He did nothing of the sort. As an Augustinian monk and a theologian, he—along with others—simply called the church to respond in faith to the Word. Some within the church heeded the call of the Reformers to biblical fidelity. Others, led by Pope Leo X, split the church by refusing to yield to God's truth as it was clearly taught by the Reformers.

The Roman church came to see that she needed to respond fully to Protestant teachings. Rome did just that in the Council of Trent. The Council met during three different periods from 1545 to 1563. It denounced many Protestant teachings, especially the idea that justification is a judicial act of God in which he declares a guilty sinner righteous because Christ has shed his blood for that sinner and given that sinner his righteousness, all received by the sinner through faith alone.

Here is Rome's official response to that: "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone ... let him be anathema" (Sixth Session, Canons on Justification, Canon 9). "If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins ... let him be anathema" (Canon 11). Rather, Rome said, men are justified when and only when they are thoroughly and perfectly sanctified. That is, God makes sinners become righteous, and then he declares them to be what they have become. The Reformers said that justification led to sanctification. Rome said that sanctification led to justification.

Unpacking God's Truth

Before the Reformation, justification was not clearly understood, just as before Augustine (more than a thousand years earlier) salvation by grace and other important doctrines were not clearly understood. For instance, Justin Martyr rejected foreordination on the ground that it eliminated human accountability, and Tertullian taught that the man who performs good works can be said to make God his debtor.

John Chrysostom's defense of the power of the human free will was widely accepted. But Pelagius developed notions about free will and human ability into the heresy that every man is born like Adam, able to sin or not to sin, and thus that we all are able to please God and be saved. Then the church, led by Augustine, sharpened her understanding of what the Bible has to say about man and salvation.

Over against the Pelagian view of man, Augustine developed his now famous fourfold view of man: (1) Before the Fall, man was able to sin or not sin. (2) Fallen, unregenerate man is not able not to sin. (3) Fallen, but regenerated man is able to sin or not sin. (4) Glorified man is not able to sin.

The question remained, however: how can fallen, sinful man be accepted by a holy God? Augustine argued that God himself must give the grace that leads to justification. According to him, there is an act of initial justification and a process of final justification. First, God initiates man's justification (at baptism) by giving him a will that is capable of desiring and performing good works. God then cooperates with him to bring justification to perfection. Clearly, Augustine saw justification as an overarching category, much as we would speak of salvation as an overarching category (encompassing justification, adoption, sanctification, etc.). As Alister McGrath puts it, "Augustine has an all-embracing understanding of justification, which included both the event of justification (brought about by operative grace) and the process of justification (brought about by cooperative grace)" (Iustitia Dei, vol. 1, p. 31; much of my discussion of pre-Reformation doctrine is dependent on McGrath).

Augustine here represents a clear advance, not only over the Pelagian heresy, but also over the fathers who went before, in understanding that salvation is all of grace. Although Augustine's view of justification falls short of a fully biblical view, it was much better than the church's previous understanding.

The church of the Middle Ages followed Augustine in some respects, particularly with regard to the need for grace in salvation. Pelagianism was put down. Even though the Synod of Orange in 529 weakened Augustianism in a measure (denying double predestination and irresistible grace), it upheld, by and large, Augustine's view of justification by grace. However, many in the Middle Ages assumed that "God will not deny grace to the man who does his best"—that is, "God helps those who help themselves."

Still, there were those who embraced the Augustinian view that justification is entirely a matter of grace. Men like Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini, and John Hus sought to reinvigorate the church with a robust Augustinianism. But Martin Luther was the first man to achieve long-term reform (and survive the effort). And it was Luther who realized that even Augustine's view of justification as a process was deficient.

Augustine understood that grace was needed from first to last, but he did not see that justification is a once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated act in which God declares the guilty sinner to be righteous, not because God has gradually made him righteous by infusing grace into him, but because God has declared him to be righteous because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to him. Luther came to realize that we are justified because of what he called the "glorious exchange," in which Christ takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. It is on that basis, and that basis alone, that we have access to God. It is on that basis that we are justified (and adopted). And once we are justified, grace is infused into us in sanctification.

Who Split the Church?

Some historians argue that the Reformation doctrine of justification as a definitive act was such a novelty, compared with the previous understanding of justification as a process, that it destroyed the unity of the church. But did the Reformers' teaching of justification by grace through faith alone place them outside the catholic church?

I would argue that Luther's insight on justification was simply a proper development of the scriptural teaching that Augustine had discovered regarding grace. In this respect, it was no different from the progress of doctrine that the church had experienced on other subjects.

Augustine had properly seen salvation as all of grace, but he had employed justification as the overarching category for God's entire work in the life of the redeemed. The Reformers properly put all that under the overarching category of salvation, and separated out justification from the whole. They explained that justification is a once-for-all act, giving us the perfect standing that we need right now to be acceptable to a holy God. We receive that standing, that perfect righteousness, simply through faith in Christ.

At the same time, the Reformers acknowledged that God does infuse his grace into believers in sanctification. They saw sanctification as inseparably linked to justification. This, again, was simply progress in the history of doctrine.

Here then is the true scandal of the Protestant Reformation. When Christ graciously raised up men within his church to teach her his truth and to call her to repent of her errors, the bishop of Rome refused to do so and dragged many along with him in his persistent rebellion against the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. The Reformation did not involve a departure from the historic catholic faith, but rather a recovery of the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). The Reformers clarified doctrines that had become murky, for the glory of God and the good of his people.

The author is a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2001.

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