On Justification by Faith

The medieval view of salvation and Luther’s view of justification stand in contrast from one another. In the medieval Catholic system, salvation was understood to be initiated by God, enacted by His Spirit, followed by a lifetime of penance and good works. As Dr. Reeves states, these good works served to “polish the gem that had been entrusted to the person” at the time of their baptism.[1] In the medieval Catholic system, a baby is baptized seven days after birth. After being baptized and christened, original sin is subsequently wiped away, the Holy Spirit enters in, and the child is thereby infused with grace granting a clean slate status of “state of grace”. To remedy the ongoing effects of sin in the Christian life, the goal was to work out one’s salvation through confession (to a priest) followed with penance, whereby one is once again restored to the “state of grace”. Thus, the medieval view of salvation is intermingled with both justification and sanctification as exemplified by a life that begins with grace and then followed by a lifetime cycle of sin, confession, and penance.[2]
Luther’s view of justification was first conceived while meditating on Romans 1:17. In this passage, Luther discovered that Paul did not speak of an objective righteousness God has revealed that Christians ought to strive for and achieve, but rather God’s own righteousness, in the Person of Christ, who came down to do the work of salvation on our behalf.[3] According to Luther, when a person puts their faith in Christ, they are imputed with His righteousness. Unlike the medieval Catholic system, justification  is not based one’s own merits, but on the finished work of Christ.[4]
Luther’s view of justification is indeed adequate for the modern church. Why? Because the doctrine has proven to be faithful to core teachings of Scripture. The Bible teaches that righteousness cannot be infused, but rather is imputed after genuine repentance and saving faith in Christ for salvation. God then pardons, accepts, and declares one righteous on the basis of Christ's righteousness.[5] In the heavenly court of law, God as judge, declares us to be righteous in His eyes. This is because, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”[6] Justification is a gift of God. To those whom God has called He has freely justified. [7] “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[8] And again in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”[9] In essence, the Scriptures teach that “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”[10]

[1] Dr. Ryan Reeves, “Luther’s Breakthrough” Lecture 1-2, CH 502 The Church from the Reformation, Semlink Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. See also James M. Kittleson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), p. 96.
[5] Romans 3:24-26; 4:25; 5:15-21 (New King James Version).
[6] Eph. 2:4-5. NKJV.
[7] Rom. 8:30 NKJV.
[8] Rom. 6:23 NKJV.
[9] Eph. 2:8-9 NKJV.
[10] 2 Cor. 5:21 (New American Standard Version).


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