The History Of The Doctrine Of Justification


By Dr. John Gerstner

“The doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” So said Martin Luther about justification by faith alone.

John Calvin agreed, calling justification by faith the “hinge” of the Reformation. But was that the historic Christian view?

One may say generally of the history of the doctrine of justification that solafideanism (justification-by-faith-alone-ism) was taught implicitly, but not explicitly, from the beginning of the church. That is, it was known in the early church that salvation was by faith alone, but not until the sixteenth century was the church called upon to define that teaching more precisely. Those in the church who had quietly apostasized opposed this essential truth (adherents of Tridentine Roman Catholicism), while the faithful (Protestants), affirmed it. The Reformers defined and refined the doctrine in the fires of controversy.

The historian of doctrine, Louis Berkhof, correctly observed that in the early church faith “was generally regarded as the outstanding instrument for the reception of the merits of Christ, and was often called the sole means of salvation.” Faith rather than works were “repeatedly expressed by the Apostolic Fathers, and re-occur in the Apologetes. . . .”

The most influential theologian of the early church was certainly Augustine (354-430). Before we consider his teaching about our crucial doctrine, we note in passing that the standard creed of the Reformation, the Augsburg Confession (1530), found solafideanism in Augustine’s mentor and predecessor, Ambrose, under whose preaching Augustine was converted. Article VI of the Confession speaks of solafideanism: “The same [justification by faith] is also taught by the Fathers: For Ambrose says, ‘It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved freely receiving.’”

In spite of this, many cannot find the doctrine in Augustine. Many historical theologians interpret him as confusing justification with sanctification, of which justification is merely a part. This is not accurate, however. Though Augustine finds justification and sanctification inseparable, they are not indistinguishable. Augustinian justification leads into sanctification, but is not confused with it.

According to Augustine, man’s faith in Christ justifies him. Confession of Christ is efficacious for the remission of sins. We are justified by the blood of Christ, and we have no merits which are not the gifts of God. Of course, faith is active through love (fides quae caritate operatur), but this does not imply that justification is on the basis of love.

Before we leave Augustine, a relatively recent Roman Catholic work requires attention. Bergauer shows clearly that Luther disagreed not only with the Epistle of James but with Augustine as well. Luther became convinced that James was opposed to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and thus dismissed the epistle as non-canonical. Bergauer also notes that in so doing, Luther was consciously departing from Augustine as well. We agree with Bergauer that Luther erred with respect to James and Augustine. Bergauer’s work confirms, however, what we will shortly note, that Luther was clearly a solafideian, although without recognizing that James and Augustine were also. The Reformer erred, apparently because he could not find explicit forensic language in either James or Augustine.

Ian Sellers sees that it is the post-Augustinian movement which “conflates the immediacy of the act of justification with the later process of sanctification.” Nevertheless, many post-Augustinians kept their concepts clear as we will see even in the Scholastic era, though many did not.

Some Roman Catholics like to cry “Forward to the Middle Ages,” thinking that they there find authority for their antisolafideian doctrine. But Adolf Harnack insisted that if the medieval church had followed its favorite teacher, Thomas Aquinas, on justification, the Reformation would not have been necessary. The great earlier Scholastic theologian, Anselm, was also solafideian. He wrote his belief in a tract for the consolation of the dying, quoted by A. H. Strong:

“Question. Dost thou believe that the Lord Jesus died for thee? Answer. I believe it. Qu. Dost thou thank him for his passion and death? Ans. I do thank him. Qu. Dost thou believe that thou canst not be saved except by his death? Ans. I believe it.” And then Anselm addresses the dying man: “Come then, while life remaineth in thee; in his death alone place thy whole trust; in naught else place any trust; to his death commit thyself wholly; with this alone cover thyself wholly; and if the Lord thy God will to judge thee, say, ‘Lord, between thy judgment and me I present the death of our Lord Jesus Christ; no otherwise can I contend with thee.’ And if he shall say that thou art a sinner, say thou: ‘Lord, I interpose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and thee.’ If he say that thou hast deserved condemnation, say: ‘Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my evil deserts and thee, and his merits I offer for those which I ought to have and have not.’ If he say that he is wroth with thee, say: ‘Lord, I oppose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between thy wrath and me.’ And when thou hast completed this, say again: ‘Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between thee and me.’” See Anselm, Opera (Migne), 1:686, 687.

The above quotation gives us reason to believe that the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith was implicitly, if not explicitly, held by many pious souls through all the ages of papal darkness.

Thus medieval Scholastics still taught justification as an instantaneous act. It was not until the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that justification was officially confirmed as a process based on human merit derived through divine grace. This was the article in Session VI, Canon 7 of the Council of Trent which led the Roman Catholic Church away from the orthodox teaching on justification.

For Luther, Romans 1:17 and Matthew 4:7 taught that the righteousness of God was his mercy and pardon. Out went all human merit from indulgences to works of supererogation. As Article IV of Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession, of which Luther approved, phrased it:

“Men can be justified freely on account of Christ through faith, when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are remitted on account of Christ who made satisfaction for sins on our behalf by his death. God imputes this faith for righteousness in his own sight.” Luther elsewhere affirms that Christ’s righteousness is ours and our sins are his. Thus, he who was innocent became guilty of depravity, while we who were depraved became innocent.

Calvin, in his Institutes, citing Augustine and Peter Lombard, taught the same doctrine. Though the Genevan saw union with Christ preceding faith (whereas for Luther it followed faith). Berkhof is justified in saying “however Calvin may have differed from Luther as to the order of salvation, he quite agreed with him on the nature and importance of the doctrine of justification by faith.” Yet Edward Boehl is correct that Calvin avoided basing justification on the mystical union which equaled intercourse with God. However, this does not justify Boehl in saying that later Reformed theologians did so identify and thus approached the Lutheran heretic, Osiander. Osiander held “essential righteousness” where the Reformed tradition never deviated from imputed righteousness.

Nevertheless, John Tillotson;, Samuel Clarke, and some other Anglicans did introduce Tridentine thinking into the Church of England by confusing the inseparability of faith and works with the meritoriousness of each.

This same tension toward meritorious righteousness in and by the justified threatened Puritanism from the beginning. That Anglican John Donne (1573-1631) and Congregationalist John Owen (1616-1683), champions of solafideanism, admitted infused righteousness while denying any merit in it shows their sensitivity to the problem. Allison in his The Rise of Moralism has traced this English development into Arminianism and beyond in a somewhat parallel way to Joseph Haroutunian’s American sketch in Piety Versus Moralism.

Puritanism could admit — in fact, insist upon — sanctification (infused righteousness) as strenuously as imputed righteousness. It was inseparably connected with it. The one thing sanctification did not do, for the Puritans, was supplant justification. As we saw, Owen did not even hesitate to speak of justitia inhaerens. Righteousness was wrought in a man because it was first imputed to him. The evidence that it was imputed to him was its being wrought in him.

There is a sense in which Puritans saw righteousness as being wrought-in before being imputed — to. This was the prior union with Christ as the psychological basis of justification. Thus the foundation of imputation became union.

The offense which some found in solafideanism was that it taught acceptance by faith only. If this is so, the Arminians argued, an unsanctified man could go to heaven, and that could never be. They were partly right, since an unsanctified man can never go to heaven — without holiness. But they were partly wrong, for one justified by faith alone is not justified by the faith that is alone. Faith is inseparably connected with works, or sanctification, or inherent righteousness.

Once again, the error was in a failure to understand the truth. A correct objection was based on an incorrect apprehension. How often had the Reformers proclaimed with James (and Paul) that faith without works was dead. Justification without sanctification did not exist. As we have seen, solafideans were not opposed to inherent righteousness except as a justifying righteousness, which was precisely what Rome claimed it to be. The orthodox were as opposed — more opposed — to Antinomianism than the unorthodox.

Not understanding that solafideanism gave works a proper role, Arminians found an improper role for them. Since works, they felt, had to justify — and sinners had none — they used faith to bring down works to a sinner’s level. That is, they saw the work of Christ as satisfying God with the imperfect works of men. “Christ has brought down the market,” according to Henry Hammond. Our inadequate righteousness was made acceptable through Christ. Allison says that this was the imputation of faith of Baxter, Goodwin, and Woodbridge versus the imputation of Christ’s righteousness of Owen, Eedes, Gataker, Walker, and also of the early Anglicans Hooker, Andrewes, Downame, Davenant, Donne, Ussher, and Hill. Commenting on Arminianism, A. H. Strong has agreed with other scholars that the “Wesleyan scheme is inclined to make faith a work. This is to make faith the cause and ground, or at least to add it to Christ’s work as a joint cause and ground, of justification. . . .”

This, however, is a rather infelicitous way of expressing the difference. It amounts to a pun on the word impute. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness construes imputation as a reckoning of, or accrediting to, of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation of faith in this contrast means regarding faith as acceptable which, by legal definition, it is not. Even the Arminians admitted, as we shall see, that it was not really acceptable to God (as Christ’s righteousness was); but on their view the Son twisted his Father’s arm to make him act as if it were. This soteriological perversion was called Neonomianism (new-law-ism) because it was not the perfect law of God which was maintained but a new, stepped-down, imperfect, “lawless” law of God. So it became an apse into justification by works which were not even works.