Reformation 500 Conference: Faith Alone


  • Justified
  • By faith alone


Justification by faith alone is said to be the belief by which the church stands or falls. Luther is credited by his students as saying, ‘if that article stands, the church stands; if it fails, the church fails.’ John Calvin spoke of it as the ‘main hinge upon which religion turns’ and ‘the sum of all piety.’ Sadly, if you ask many Christians today what justification means, they don’t really know. It has been said that where the formal cause of the Reformation was an argument about authority; the material cause was over this question of justification by faith alone. In other words, the main concern and argument at the time of the Reformation was around this question, how can a sinner be righteous in the eyes of a holy God? To this most important question two different answers were given. There was the Roman Catholic answer and the answer of the Reformation.

Here is a quick summary of the way in which the Medieval Catholic Church answered the question how a sinner is made holy in the eyes of a holy God.

A sinner was saved by and nurtured at the breast of the church. From the cradle to the grave, the church by its priests through its seven sacraments was seen to shepherd a soul through this life into heaven. At birth you had the stain of original sin washed away and were brought into a state of justification by baptism; and a seed of grace planted in your heart, you nurtured this seed of grace by doing good deeds, and the love produced by the good deeds were the good works were what God judged on judgement day to declare you justified/righteous. The Catholic church had two categories of sin, mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins were the big ones by which you lost your justification and you needed to be rejustified. You renewed your justification by going to confession and doing works of penance. And just before you died you had last rites which washed away a whole bunch of other sins. It was expected that almost all good Catholics would spend some time in purgatory. This helps you to understand why indulgences were so popular. Indulgences were seen as an aid to shortening your or loved ones time in purgatory. Purgatory is seen as the temporal punishment for sins already forgiven. Yes you heard it right, Christ’s sufferings were not enough you have to suffer too. And it was believed that by donating alms, the donation of money for the poor, that this act would not go unrewarded. Christ’s surplus good deeds, as well as the surplus good deeds of the saints were viewed as a treasury of merit that could be applied by the church to alleviate temporal punishments, i.e. shorten time in purgatory. On account of the fact that justification could be lost and a justified person could go to hell, and that almost every Christian will spend some in time in purgatory, there was no certainty or assurance of salvation. In fact later statements by the Catholic church made it clear that any who believed they could know they were going to heaven apart from direct revelation to people like the saints, were anathematised.

Martin Luther was a man seeking salvation in a climate where your good deeds ultimately determined your eternal destiny. Because he had been taught that only those sins confessed can be forgiven Luther would spend hours confessing his sins to his superiors in the monastery. To help him find peace he was encouraged to take a teaching post where he would teach Romans, Galatians and the psalms. During his studies this guilty monk was having real trouble with the concept of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:16-17 ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”:

‘I hated that word, “justice of God” (iustitia Dei), which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.

…I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.’

He saw that the righteousness of God is not something that we produce or attain to, but rather it is a gift that God gives to those who have faith. This was one of the great breakthroughs that Luther experienced which has helped us break free from medieval notions of justification. We are justified by faith alone. Let us think a bit more deeply about this concept.